This Shabbat is known as the Sabbath of Song (Shabbat Shira). The name is derived from the report in this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach[i], describing how Moses and the Jewish people broke out in song[ii] and Miriam led the women in dance[iii], in celebration of the extraordinary miracle of the parting of the Red Sea[iv] that saved them.
It was a glorious moment and, yet, it did not last. Unfortunately, the exhilaration and joy was short-lived, as the people confronted the more prosaic aspects of life, such as securing potable water and food in the wilderness. To meet their needs, G-d performed more miracles, including providing manna from heaven[v] and Miriam’s well[vi]. Amazingly, though, enjoying the good life in this miraculous setting, did not assure happiness. People continued to complain[vii] and err, including in the Sin of the Golden Calf[viii]. Moreover, the wilderness life-style was not a sustainable model. Ultimately the people would come to live in the Promised Land of Israel and have to cope with the rigors of ordinary life, without the benefit of extraordinary miracles. Something more was needed and it is suggested the curative solution lies in a verse[ix] appearing in the next section of the Biblical text, when the people complain about a lack of water in the incident of the Bitter Waters[x]. It states that it was there that G-d appointed to them certain Commandments, including observing Shabbat[xi].
Observance of Shabbat was also an intrinsic part of the instructions of how to collect the Manna. Thus, the Jewish people were adjured to prepare for Shabbat, by collecting two portions of Manna on Friday, and enjoined not to go out on Shabbat to gather the Manna[xii]. There were some missteps, as some violated this precept, by going out to collect the Manna on Shabbat, but they were disappointed to find none and were remonstrated by Moses for their malfeasance[xiii]. However, eventually, the people[xiv] appear to have gotten into the proper habit and refrained from doing so[xv].
As the Manna rules depict, the concept of Shabbat was not just about resting on Shabbat it was also about preparing for Shabbat. It is interesting to note that that the Midrash[xvi] reports, when Moses was a young prince in Egypt, he secured the right for the Jewish slaves to have a day of rest on Shabbat. But, it appears the proper observance of Shabbat did not take hold until later, as noted above. It is suggested that this is because the passive act of just resting on Shabbat is insufficient to alter old habits in a meaningful way. It takes doing something active, tangible and satisfying to excite the brain’s chemistry to create new neural pathways, which alter habitual behavior[xvii]. The feeling of accomplishment in doing something good and meaningful is transformative. Rewarding and reinforcing it with joyful experiences, in the real spirit of Shabbat, makes it even more habit forming. As Avot[xviii] so pithily states, L’Pum Tzara Agra (according to the effort is the reward). Maimonides also notes[xix] that doing it all with joy not only enhances the experience, it amplifies the reward.
The Sfas Emes[xx] analyzes the nature of the process of preparation for the performance of a Mitzva[xxi] in contrast to the moment of doing of a Mitzva[xxii]. He notes the effort of preparing for the performance of a Mitzva contains greater power and means of rescue from sin than the substance of the Mitzva itself. This is because the actual performance of the Mitzva only lasts for a defined and often short duration of time[xxiii]. However, the effect of expending effort, focusing intently and proceeding joyfully in the process of preparation for performance of the Mitzvot (i.e.: getting invested in the right intellectual and emotional state) is not momentary; it is forever.
The Sfas Emes posits the preparations involve the person being mindful and maintaining a state of readiness, so as to be able at any moment to fulfill G-d’s commandments. In this state of consciousness, the person is not readily susceptible to sin. Doing so with joy is also very important. The process of preparation infuses a person with a new spirit and become pure of heart. This makes the person less susceptible to thinking about sin[xxiv]. In essence, the person is wholly focused on the work and achieving the proper intellectual and emotional state of mind to accomplish the Mitzva. This kind of concentration on the task at hand does not readily permit outside intrusions to spoil the mood. There’s also no time or opportunity to divert attention from accomplishing the mission, of fulfilling the Mitzva, precisely as specified by G-d. Thus, effectively, the preparations are better suited, than the Mitzva itself, to protect the person so that don’t misbehave.
The joyful preparation for Shabbat has this kind of power. Work and the other activities of life are important; but Shabbat is a fundamental part of our traditions. It is a unifying element, which enables us warmly to embrace family and friends and infuse all our lives with true meaning.
Shabbat also has a very special meaning in our family. My dad Z”L and father-in-law Z”L were both Auschwitz survivors. When they came to this country, they were immediately confronted with the challenge of working on Shabbat. In those days, Saturday was just another workday in American society. If you didn’t work on Saturday, then as the saying went, don’t come in on Monday. My dad wouldn’t work on Shabbat and, hence, he was, therefore, peremptorily fired every Monday. It took time for him finally to obtain a job at Westinghouse, where because he was recognized as being so talented and skilled, they didn’t want to let him go. The compromise was he worked every Sunday, instead; maintaining the generators that provided Milwaukee with electricity. I too faced similar tests, early in my career; but the guiding principle was the Torah and Shabbat, together with family, first.
It did mean we couldn’t do everything other people did on weekends; but that was more than acceptable, because we were invested in a Torah life-style that brought exquisite meaning and great satisfaction to life. It also, as the Sfas Emes noted, kept us out of trouble, because like most good things in life, it takes effort and preparation properly to observe and enjoy it.
Shabbat is a Mitzva that is exquisitely attuned to the concept of preparation. All the work needed to enjoy the Shabbat must be done in advance during the workweek, because by Shabbat the work must be done. As the Talmud[xxv] notes, he who toils on Erev Shabbat (the day before Shabbat) will eat on Shabbat. This offers the potential of transforming otherwise mundane activities of the entire week into the extraordinary, because they become the means of accomplishing honoring the Shabbat[xxvi].
Each day of the week can provide the satisfaction of doing something in preparation for Shabbat. Thus, the Talmud[xxvii] reports that during the week, when Shammai found something choice to eat, he would save it for Shabbat. If he subsequently found something even better, he would switch it out, so as to reserve the best for Shabbat. Therefore, in effect, all his eating was thereby rendered an act of honoring the Shabbat.
The Talmud[xxviii] also describes how the Tannaim and Amoraim would get dressed in special clothes, on Erev Shabbat, to greet the Shabbat. Others would cook food for Shabbat, attend to the cooking fire, set the table, make sure the house was properly lit for Shabbat or perform other household chores to prepare the home for Shabbat.
There is also studying the Parsha each week. It’s amazing how after fifty years of doing it, I still find something new each time and wonder how I could have missed it. Why not go for it and prepare a short Torah thought each week to deliver at the Shabbat table. Remember, though, the Talmud[xxix] advises to study Torah with a song. Shabbat meals are also a time for singing Zemirot (songs) together. Studying and teaching a new Shabbat tune can be inspirational and bring joy to everyone involved. Indeed, whether, its praying, studying Torah, joining together with family at meals or even doing the chores in preparation for Shabbat, it so much more satisfying to do so joyfully with a favorite tune.
Growing up, we all had household chores in preparation for Shabbat. Mine was to vacuum the house. There was only one bath in the house and so we had our appointed times for bathing in honor of the Shabbat. My dad came home from the Supermarket business last and so he went last. We all had to conserve the hot water and allow sufficient time for him to have a hot bath before Shabbat. My brother Z”L and I would make sure we were ready for Shabbat and there in time to be with dad, while he luxuriated in the soothing hot water, so that we could have uninterrupted time to talk to him. We looked forward each week to that special time together.
When my dad bought his first supermarket in Laurelton, Queens, approximately 60 years ago, he turned it into the first Shomer Shabbat supermarket in Queens, with a kosher food section. This was unheard of at the time. It was not simple to accomplish in the era of Blue Laws; but he was undaunted and achieved it. Sunday became a great day of business at Good Food in Laurelton and then again in its next incarnation in Forest Hills.
My father also taught us many lessons about how properly to observe and prepare for Shabbat. This included an incredibly important one for us when we went into the professions and our own businesses. He counseled not to start something new after mid-day on Erev Shabbat. It was one thing to complete a task; but initiating a new one could easily result in becoming so enmeshed that might lose any sense of time. This could result in arriving home late for Shabbat; a risk we were urged never to take. He was a man of few words; but when he spoke, it was usually pure wisdom.
Focusing on preparing for Shabbat during the week is no abstract phenomenon. We are enabled to transform mundane tasks into something more and special. Whether it’s buying provisions, cooking, cleaning the house, setting the table, dressing in freshly cleaned and pressed clothes set aside for Shabbat and even sitting for a few moments in anticipation of the start of Shabbat, the immersive experience of preparing for and observing Shabbat is ennobling. It’s uncanny how good it feels.
Make every Shabbat special. It’s all in the preparation and preparing for Shabbat can be sublime. Be an Erev Shabbat Jew and enjoy the Shabbat experience all week long. It’s Shabbat Shira; so if you don’t already sing Shabbat Zemirot, this is a good time to start and make it an endearing habit at the Shabbat table. Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach.
[i] Beginning at Exodus 13:17.
[ii] Known as Az Yashir (after the first two words in Exodus 15:1, which records: ‘Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel’) that is recited every day as a part of the morning prayer service.
[iii] Exodus, Chapter 15.
[iv] Exodus, Chapter 14.
[v] Exodus, Chapter 15.
[vi] BT Taanit 9a. Miriam’s Well was created when Moses struck the rock with his staff to yield a source of water (Exodus 17:6). It traveled with the Children of Israel in their sojourn in the Wilderness. See, Strike Fear or Symbolize Peace; a Choice of Staffs, by the author, in the Times of Israel Blogs, dated 7/12/2019.
[vii] See, Kvetching and the Divine, by the author, in the Times of Israel Blogs, dated 1/24/2019.
[viii] Exodus, Chapter 32.
[ix] Exodus 15:25.
[x] Exodus 15:25-26.
[xi] BT Sanhedrin 56b. See also Targum Yonatan on Exodus 15:25. The term Chok is used in the verse, which literally means to imprint.
[xii] Exodus 16:22-26.
[xiii] Exodus 16:27-29.
[xiv] With one notable exception, the Gatherer of Wood (Mekoshesh Etzim), reported in Numbers 15:32.
[xv] Exodus 16:30.
[xvi] Exodus Rabbah 1:28.
[xvii] See, A Red Cow Protocol, by the author, in the Times of Israel Blogs, dated 6/17/2021.
[xviii] Avot 5:23.
[xix] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 9:1.
[xx] Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, a 19th Century Chassidic Master and the third Gerrer Rebbe, known by the title of his master work Sfas Emes.
[xxi] Sfas Emes, Parshat Ha’azinu, Section 634 (s.v. B’Tur). This exposition is made in the context of explaining an enigmatic reference in the Midrash to Sukkot being the beginning of a new reckoning of sin. The Midrash notes that the period between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is one where everyone is involved in the Mitzvot. This includes building the Sukkah and selecting the Lulav (and Etrog) and binding the Lulav together with the Hadasim and Aravot. It’s on the first day of Sukkot that stand before G-d with the Lulav and Etrog. In effect, during the period between Yom Kippur, there are no sins of record. The grace period ends on the first day of Sukkot when sins are reckoned once again. Hence, Moses warns the Children of Israel (Leviticus 23:40) about that first day of the Festival.
[xxii] Leviticus Rabbah 30:7, Tanchuma, Emor 22:1 and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 27:7.
[xxiii] Just a moment, in the case of holding the Lulav
[xxiv] Sfas Emes, Deuteronomy, L’Sukkot 19:4.
[xxv] BT Avodah Zarah 3a.
[xxvi] Exodus 31:15-17. As the Torah records, G-d created the world in six days and on the seventh day ceased work and was refreshed. The Talmud (BT Shabbat 119b) reports that Rava said, when pray on Shabbat evening about how G-d finished the work of creation, it is deemed as if a partner in creation.
[xxvii] BT Beitzah 16a.
[xxviii] Bt Shabbat 119a-b.
[xxix] BT Megillah 32a.