March 6th, 2020— The Washington Post headline could not be more accurate: “Yeshiva, in an NCAA tournament beats WPI and sundown.” Playing the Worcester Polytechnic Institute college basketball team, even as precautions for the coronavirus were being implemented, as Yeshiva University’s first opportunity to make it in the big league. Yeshiva’s basketball team—the Maccabees, or the Macs—made sure they played a good game, but also made sure they would not play on Shabbat. Observing Shabbat was not easy as one match took place on Friday not long before Shabbat, and on Saturday night—not long after Shabbat ended.
The Post’s Chuck Culpepper reports said it best:
“BALTIMORE — What an eccentric Friday at majestic Johns Hopkins: the sounds that would be inaudible had fans been allowed in the gym, the oddity of one side facing the basketball deadline of the final buzzer but also the broader deadline of Shabbat, the shuttering of the facility between games to disinfect it.
The game’s start time went from 1 p.m. to 2 to 2:20 as WPI awaited clearance from its top administrators monitoring the outbreak. Yeshiva coaches and others started to fret about sundown at 6:04 p.m., with Shabbat beginning 18 minutes before that at 5:46 and Yeshiva needing to depart the premises, preferably by 5, game completed or not. At one point in the run-up, coaches fretted over whether there might be official (or “media”) timeouts, which would extend the game’s duration. There would.”
Shabbat connects with almost every Parasha in the book of Shemot. The like no other Mitzvah, Shabbat appears everywhere, starting from Parashat Beshalach though the end of the book of Shemot, Shabbat is the theme. Each mention highlights a unique aspect of Shabbat.
“And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: ‘Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy.” (Exodus chapter 31)
Rashi, citing a most famous rabbinic teaching, comments:
“Although you will be rushed to perform the work [of the Mishkan] quickly, the Sabbath shall not be set aside because of it”
Sacred though it may be, the value of building the Mishkan does not override the importance of Shabbat. In fact, it is the construction of the Mishkan that teaches us what kinds of creative work we may not engage in on Shabbat. The 39 melachot—the categories of work forbidden on Shabbat—were all part of the process of creating and maintaining the Mishkan.
The Torah then goes on to share those famous words Jews say at least twice on Shabbat—Ve’ Shamru:
“Ve’ Shamru –Thus shall the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make [la’asot] the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested.”
Rabbi Avraham Sofer (1815–1871), one of Hungary’s greatest rabbis, in his magnum opus Ketav Sofer wonders about this. When learning about the laws of Shabbat, there seems to be so much about what we shouldn’t do. We cannot engage in the 39 me’lachot—forbidden categories of work— nor can we engage in business ventures. We cannot use money, shop, exhaust ourselves with work, or prepare for the upcoming days of the week. It is all about what we should not be doing. Why then does the Torah speak of Shabbat in terms of doing ‘la’asot et haShabbat‘ making the Shabbat? Why not talk about the aspect of resting or what we do not do on Shabbat?
The Ketav Sofer shares a beautiful explanation, contrasting two worldviews of the Shabbat. Shabbat was introduced into a radically utilitarian and material world. The ancient Greeks looked at Shabbat as an act of laziness. Centuries went by, and the world recognized the incredible value of rest. Humans are more productive when they take of time to rest, not less productive. It is at this point that one might be tempted to view the Shabbat as a logical and straightforward form of rest, one that increases productivity or allows for leisure. Yet there is another way of understanding Shabbat, a more meaningful and spiritual vision of it. “it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy”. Shabbat is so much more than just a day of rest. It is a testimony to the bond between God and His people. Shabbat is a reminder of the world’s creation, our Exodus from Egypt, and a profoundly meaningful covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Seeing Shabbat as a simple act of abstaining from work misses the main point of Shabbat. When we keep the Shabbat, we are not merely abstaining from work; we are making a statement. We are stating that the world is not a ceaseless wheel of production and consumption, rather it is a playing field for us to create sacred space. Shabbat is testimony to our faith in the creation of the world, redemption from Egypt, and a holy covenant between God and his people. That is the meaning of la’asot et ha’Shabbat—making the Shabbat. By being inactive on Shabbat, we are active in our testimony. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we are making a statement to the world.
This, Rabbi Sofer argues, highlights the next words as well. “Le’ dorotam“, to the generations. When we observe Shabbat as merely a day of rest, it is hard to convey that message to future generations. After all, not everyone wants to have a day of rest. Some might want to use their day of rest to catch up on work. It is only when we—make Shabbat—when observing Shabbat as a day of testimony that we can pass on its message to future generations.
From Yeshiva University’s college basketball team to a worker fighting to make sure he gets off on Shabbat, observing Shabbat is not just a matter of rest; it is a testimony to the world. The blessings of Shabbat are many, yet one simple thing unites them all: sanctity. Whether it is a student taking off from classwork on Shabbat or a traveler making sure they have a place to stop for Shabbat, Shabbat is a powerful statement to the world that the universe has far more sanctity than the eye can meet. This is what the Macs told America this week with a slam dunk; this is what Jews have been telling the world for thousands of years. Shabbat Shalom!