“Rolling on Shabbos” Parashat Ki Tisa 5782

The instructions for the Tabernacle (Mishkan), its utensils and the clothing of the priests (kohanim) who will officiate therein have been received, all in intricate detail. The time has arrived to execute the program. But before this happens, the Torah briefly segues to the subject of Shabbat [Shemot 31:13-17]: “Nevertheless, you must keep My Shabbatot, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, to know that I have consecrated you… The Israelite people shall keep the Shabbat, observing the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days G-d made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day [G-d] ceased from work and was refreshed.” What is the connection between the construction of the Mishkan and Shabbat? What are these verses doing specifically here?

Many of the commentators suggest that the Torah is warning the Jewish People not to become carried away in the building of the Mishkan to the detriment of other commandments. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, quotes G-d as telling Moshe, “Although I have mandated you to command [the Israelites] concerning the work of the Mishkan, do not let it seem to you that you may easily set aside the Shabbat because of that work.” The construction of the Mishkan, as important as it may be, does not override the keeping of the Shabbat.

Immediately after making this comment, Rashi slides in a few more words that nearly blew me off my chair. Commenting on the phrase “to know” in verse 13, Rashi explains, “[So that] the nations of the world [should know] that I, G-d, sanctify you.” Excuse me? The verse explicitly states that Shabbat is “a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, to know that I have consecrated you”. If the sign is between G-d and the Jewish People, would it not be fair to say that the verb “to know” is also referring to the Jewish People? Why does Rashi switch the subject of the sentence mid-stream?

The first step in our explanation lies in noting the existence of a “key word” – a repeatedly used word – in the above-quoted verses. A quick look shows that “keep” – “shamor” – is a key word, appearing in one form or another no less than three times. To understand the meaning of “shamor”, we turn to the Ten Commandments. The commandment of Shabbat – the fifth commandment – contains a number of discrepancies in the description of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Devarim when compared to the description of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Shemot. The most glaring discrepancy lies in the first word: In the Book of Shemot [20:7], the Torah tells us “Remember (Zachor) the Shabbat” while in the Book of Devarim [5:11] we are commanded “Keep (Shamor) the Shabbat”. The Talmud[1] explains that “shamor” refers to the negative commandments, all the actions that are not permitted on Shabbat in order to preserve its sanctity, such as building, cooking, and writing. “Zachor” refers to the positive aspects of Shabbat, actions performed to honour the Shabbat, such as reciting Kiddush on wine, wearing special clothes, and eating good food. “Shamor” pertains to the more utilitarian aspects of Shabbat while “zachor” is more esoteric.

Rabbi Avraham Azulay[2], who lived in Gaza in the early seventeenth century, puts a different spin on this concept. Writing in “Baalei Brit Avram”,  Rabbi Azulay directs our attention to a well-known Midrash that tells how Moshe went to Pharaoh and recommended that in order to get maximum output from his Jewish slaves, he should give them one day of rest each week from their back-breaking physical labour. Moshe suggested they take this day off on the seventh day of the week. When G-d designated Shabbat as a day of rest, He retroactively vindicated Moshe’s choice of the Shabbat as the Jewish day of rest. The Torah begins the discussion of Shabbat that precedes the building of the Mishkan with the word “Nevertheless (Ach)”. Our Sages always interpret the word “ach” as denoting an exception. By inserting the concept of Shabbat immediately prior to the building of the Mishkan, before G-d rests His Divine Presence in our corporeal world, the Torah is demanding that the Jewish People accept Shabbat as something more than simply a utilitarian day of rest, something more than a Jewish Sunday. Shabbat must become “a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel”. The Jewish People are challenged to shift the emphasis from “shamor” to “zachor”.

Now Rashi’s words begin to come into focus. One does not have to be Jewish to be familiar with the Jewish concept of Shabbat. One of my favourite movie scenes is from “The Big Lebowski” in which Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, is told that he will be participating in a bowling tournament on Saturday. Sobchak announces that he will not participate in the tournament because he does not “roll on Shabbos”. He tells his friends, “Saturday… is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t **** ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure **** don’t **** roll![3]” For Sobchak and the movie’s non-Jewish audience, Judaism is a litany of do-not’s. Shabbat, as understood by the nations of the world, is exemplified by “shamor”. They have no idea that the inner soul of Shabbat lies in “zachor”.

This idea was beautifully illustrated in a podcast I recently heard given by Avi Bergmann, a Rabbi, a teacher, and a successful investment banker, called “The Experience of Shemitta”. Shemitta, the seventh, sabbatical year, has much in common with Shabbat. For instance, the Torah introduces Shemitta as [Vayikra 25:2] “Shabbat to G-d” and Shemitta runs on a seven-year cycle, mimicking the seven-day Shabbat cycle. Rabbi Bergmann makes a differentiation between “zachor” and “shamor” which is as relevant to Shabbat as it is to Shemitta: “Shamor” is impersonal. While certain people are more careful[4] than others in their performance of the commandments, everyone is bound by the same restrictions. “Zachor”, on the other hand, is personal. Every person honours the Shabbat in his own way. Some wear untucked white shirts and others wear three-piece suits. Some eat fish and others eat duck. Whatever floats your boat. The nations of the world see a Shabbat that is impersonal and foreboding. The Jewish People experience something intimate and other-worldly. Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, the Director of Education at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), discussed this idea on a recent “18forty” podcast. He stated that Shabbat is completely different when spent alone than when spent with family. Shabbat spent alone[5] can very often cause a feeling of isolation, locked in a room with little to do other than to read a few more pages of your book. Shabbat spent with family is serene. Sitting around the table, revelling in each-other’s presence, we sing, we talk, we joke, we discuss. Shabbat spent alone is limited to “shamor”. Shabbat spent with family unlocks “zachor”.

Last week, Rabbi Aron Moss, a Sydney-based rabbi, was addressing in in his “Question of the Week” the question of “What is Judaism”. Rabbi Moss suggested that in order to understand the meaning of “Judaism”, one must first understand the meaning of “Jew”. He posits that the Jewish people are a family, the Torah is the family rules, and Judaism is the story of a family: “Every family has its story – its joys and its conflicts, its high moments and its not so high moments… But throughout the family dramas, [we] remain a family. Judaism is our family story. But not a story to just read, a story to live. We are the characters of the story. The story is bigger than you or me or any one person… Each one of us, through our relationship with G-d and the Jewish people, continues the story that is Judaism.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] This concept appears in the Talmud in multiple locations.

[2] Rabbi Azulay was the great-grandfather of Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulay, known as the “Chida”.

[3] Lots of expletives deleted here. The combination of Sobchak’s profanity and his orthodoxy makes the scene that much more hilarious.

[4] I use this term with the utmost care.

[5] Having spent Shabbat overseas on more than one business trip, I found Rabbi Bashevkin’s words profound.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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