This week, October 26/27 is the annual international Shabbat project. First launched in South Africa in 2013, this unique Shabbat experience is now celebrated in 1,152 cities worldwide with numerous events and activities for all ages (Shabbat Project). Understanding the unique spiritual essence and deeper meaning of Shabbat will help make the celebration of this event all the more meaningful.
The Torah, while concluding its narrative of the story of Creation states: “The skies, the earth, and all their numerous components were completed. On the seventh day, God completed His work that He had made. On the seventh day, He rested from all of his work that He had done…God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it.”( Bereishit 2:1–3) It is in the later chapters of the Book of Shemot 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 sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to God. You shall perform no labor…God therefore blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.” ( Shemot 20:11) Though it appears often in the text of the Torah itself, and though it is an integral and fundamental part of Jewish tradition, unfortunately the essence and meaning of Shabbat is often misunderstood.
Rabbi David Aaron, founder and dean of Isralight, recounts a fascinating experience regarding the misconception of Shabbat that he encountered when working with a Jewish youth group. He initially 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 brought to the foreground the 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’ts.” 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 that 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; a most notably Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People, which has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide. Yet even with all of these resources, many have yet to find success. Even those who do succeed 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 help us achieve it?
Rabbi Chanan Morrison, a noted author, presents an interesting insight on the nature of success from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Silver from the Land of Israel. The Talmud recounts a discussion on the nature of the different oils that were not eligible to be used to kindle the Shabbat lamps. One of the oils 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.”
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said, “It is oil from Jonah’s kikayon plant.”(Shabbat 21a.)
Rav Kook explains that these three scholars were not just attempting to identify a type of oil, but rather they were discussing the key to achieving true success and happiness in life. The discussion is found here next to the Shabbat lamps because, as Rav Kook notes, Shabbat is the perfect time for introspection, since on this day we take a break from the rapid and continuous pace of our normal work-week. 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.”( Rabbi Chanan Morrison, Silver from the Land of Israel, pg. 35.) Rav Kook further explains that these three opinions of the identity of keek oil are in fact alluding to three different types of false success, which have no place in the Shabbat experience:
The first opinion, given by Samuel, is that seafarers described a bird called keek that dwells in faraway lands. Rav Kook explains that this alludes to false success, because oftentimes people traveled to distant lands 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 referring to those who strive to achieve success by sacrificing their moral compass in the pursuit of profit.
According to Rabbi Isaac, the identity of this elusive oil is cottonseed. Since 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 that ‘In one night it appeared, and in one night it was gone.’(Yonah 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; they are not the path to true and long-lasting happiness. ( Silver from the Land of Israel, pg. 36.)
With Rav Kook’s explanation, it becomes clear why the keek oil is invalid to light the Shabbat lamps 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 a light on false ideals and mirages of happiness and success. The very purpose and essence of Shabbat is to create time and space 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 at the Friday night Shabbat 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. Nor is it only in the many don’ts of the day that we will find purpose and meaning. 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, meaningful success and happiness.
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.“