The Essence of Shabbat -Thoughts on Parshat Bereisheit

In the beginning verses of the book of Genesis we encounter one of the most often misunderstood concepts in the Jewish tradition: Shabbat (the Sabbath Day). The Torah, while concluding its narrative of the story of Creation states, “Now the heavens and the earth were completed and their entire host. And God completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did. And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He abstained from all His work that God created to do.( Genesis 2:1-3)” It is in the later chapters of the Book of Exodus in which the Torah expounds upon how exactly man is supposed to differentiate between the Shabbat and the other days of the week. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. You shall work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is Shabbat to the Lord your God. Do not do anything that constitutes work…God therefore blessed the Shabbat and made it holy.” (Exodus 8:11) And though the Shabbat is an integral and fundamental part of Jewish tradition, its essence and meaning is often misunderstood.

Rabbi David Aaron, Founder and Dean of Isralight, recounts a fascinating experience about the misconception of Shabbat which he encountered when working with a Jewish youth group. He thought that inviting the participants to share in a Shabbat experience would be the ideal way to get them in touch with this aspect of their Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, the reaction was not enthusiastic and instead shed light on a glaring void and disconnect to Shabbat so prevalent among today’s youth. When Rabbi Aaron presented the idea of a Shabbaton, one of the teenage participants looked at him in total shock. “Shabbat!?” she exclaimed, “Do you mean no tearing toilet paper?” This sentence encapsulated her relationship to Shabbat, to her it was entirely a day of don’t’s. Most people are fully aware of what is not done on Shabbat, but they very often miss the purpose of the day itself.

Shabbat, a day of rest, is a concept which runs contrary to one of the primary goals of modern man: the perpetual and unrelenting quest for success– be it financial, academic, social or otherwise. Self-help books about how to achieve success fly off the shelves, most notably Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People, which has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Yet even with all of these resources, many people have yet to find success and even those who do oftentimes do not find the happiness they so desperately seek. What, then, is the nature of true success and how can embracing the meaning of Shabbat not hinder but rather help us achieve it?

Rabbi Chanan Morrison, in his work Silver from the Land of Israel, presents an interesting insight on the nature of success from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in Israel during the British Mandate period. The Talmud recounts a discussion on the nature of the different oils that are not eligible to be used to kindle the Shabbat lamps (Shabbat 21a). One of the oils which is subject to debate and discussion is keek oil. What is keek oil? Samuel says, “I asked all of the seafarers, and they told me that there is a certain bird in the faraway towns overseas called keek. Rabbi Isaac said, “It is cottonseed oil” and Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said, “It is oil from Jonah’s Kikayon plant.”

Rav Kook explains that these scholars were not just attempting to identify a type of oil, but rather they were discussing the key to achieving true happiness and success in life. The discussion is found here next to the Shabbat lamps because, Rav Kook notes, Shabbat is the perfect time for this introspection as on this day we take a break from the rapid and continues pace of our normal work-week, and in this stillness we are better able to evaluate our progress and goals. He writes, “The various oils used to feed the lights symbolize different forms of wealth and success. Some oils burn more smoothly and produce a brighter light than others; so too, some types of success generate greater inner joy and satisfaction.” Rav Kook explains that these three opinions as to the identity of keek oil which is disqualified to be used on Shabbat, is in fact alluding to three different types of false success.

The first opinion, given by Samuel, is that seafarers described a bird called keek which dwells in faraway lands. Rav Kook explains that this alludes to false success because oftentimes distant lands were traveled to in order to amass great wealth at the expense of family life. In addition, the mention of seafarers in ancient times was often synonymous with a lifestyle somewhat devoid of high moral standing, and this is related to those who achieved success by sacrificing their moral compass in the pursuit of profit.Neither of these endeavors are capable of bringing man true happiness and success.

According to Rabbi Isaac, the identity of this elusive oil is cottonseed. The most common function of cotton is to create the clothing that we wear, it can be said that it serves a completely external function. Rav Kook explains that the cottonseed oil is referring to the endless pursuit of a rich and indulgent lifestyle, which may appear externally desirable but does not in fact lend itself to an internal sense of happiness.

And finally, the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish is that keek is the oil from Jonah’s kikayon plant. He writes,“What is the outstanding characteristic of the kikayon? Its fleeting existence- “In one night it appeared, and in one night it was gone.”(Jonah 4:10) Short lived pleasures and quickly forgotten diversions are not suitable for inner joy.” Pleasures that are here today but gone tomorrow are but illusions, not the path to true and long lasting happiness.

With Rav Kook’s brilliant explanation, it becomes clear why the keek oil is invalid and has no place in the Shabbat experience. The oil with which we light Shabbat candles needs to reflect true contentment, and keek oil instead shines light on false ideals and mirages of happiness and success. The very purpose and essence of Shabbat is to create for humankind a space and time to focus on how to be truly successful in life — not with external and fleeting pleasure, but rather with true joys that are internal and everlasting. When we come together to the Friday night table with family and loved ones to gaze at the lights of the Shabbat candles, we should realize that it is not in the fleeting material possessions we acquire that will bring us happiness. But rather it is spending more quality time with family, giving charity to a person in need, and in every good deed that we do to make the world a better place that we will find our true and everlasting success.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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