A particular father had a family of children who were forever quarreling. Then he fell ill. Days before he died, he asked one of them to bring him a bundle of sticks. He handed the bundle to each of his sons and told them to try to break it. Although each one tried his best, none could break the bundle.
The father then untied the bundle and gave the sticks to his sons to break one by one; this they did very quickly.
“My sons,” said the father, “do you see how certain it is that if you are united, it will be impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you will be no stronger than a single stick in that bundle.”
This is what Shabbat does for a family. It makes every family member feel loved, important, indispensable, and part of an unbreakable unit.
When Shabbat comes, Jewish law dictates that you must live on this day “as though all your work has been completed.”
This is not denial. It is called living in the now. It means that one day each week, we do not think about “making” a living; we are “living.” One day a week, we remember that we are more than work. We have a soul. We were sent to Earth on a mission. There is something infinitely valuable about our existence, unrelated to our financial or worldly situation.
The Talmud describes a fascinating exchange between the Roman Governor in Palestine during the second century CE and the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva. The Romans, like the Greeks, could not appreciate the concept of the Sabbath in which you would allow all of your slaves a “day off” of labor.
“What makes this day different than any other day?” the Roman Governor Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva responds, “What makes you different than any other person?”
“The Emperor has so willed. He bestowed upon me special honor.”
“And the Emperor of the world has chosen this day as a unique and holy day, bestowing upon it special honor.”
“But perhaps you have confused the days?” the Governor asked. “How are you sure that in all this time, you have not misplaced the seventh day?”
“The river Sambatyon will prove it!” responded Rabbi Akiva.
Rabbi Akiva referred to a legendary river named Sambatyon, which also means “Sabbath” in Greek, apparently located in Syria, Afghanistan, or Ethiopia. This river was unnavigable on weekdays because it flowed with strong currents carrying along stones with tremendous force, but it rested on the Sabbath.
A Roman historian living earlier than Rabbi Akiva, Pliny the Elder (24–79 C.E.), described the river in his work Natural History. He writes that the river ran rapidly six days a week and rested on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Akiva was not only referring to a physical river but also a metaphorical, symbolic river. Life, many times, is a journey through a tumultuous river, hurling heavy stones upon us. Then comes the Sabbath, and the river rests. On Shabbat, our river becomes tranquil and serene.
This is the power of Shabbat. In a world that is changing by the week, or by the day, or by the minute, and sometimes by the second, on Shabbat, we focus on that which is eternal in our lives: our aspirations to become better people, our love of our spouse and children, our relationship with our soul and with our God, our need for prayer and study, and our yearning for reflection and transcendence.