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Michael Carasik

Va-etchanan: The Sabbath in Stereo

This week’s reading is the one that contains Moses’ repetition of the Ten Commandments, and I’m going to look at one of the ten, the Sabbath commandment, and compare it with the same commandment as recorded in Exodus 20. In light of what’s been happening in Israel it may seem like fiddling while Rome burns … but no one wants my political opinion. And the Torah will continue to be read no matter what.

The first thing to note is that the reason given for the Sabbath in each case is different. Deuteronomy gives what we might call a social justice reason: workers need rest and relaxation. Exodus gives a cosmic reason: the Sabbath is built into the structure of the universe. The combination of the two is expressed in the Friday night kiddush, which invokes both ma’aseh bereshit ‘the work of creation’ and yetziat mitzrayim ‘the exodus from Egypt’.

What I want to focus on today is something different: the beginning of the commandment in each version, the command word that introduces each one. (Technically each is a Qal infinitive absolute used as an imperative; see Lesson 24 of my Hebrew course to learn about the infinitive absolute. Watch Lesson 1 free here.)

In Exodus 20, the commandment is to “Remember [זָכ֛וֹר֩ zakhor] the Sabbath day” (v. 8); in Deuteronomy 5, to “Observe [שָׁמ֣֛וֹר shamor] the Sabbath day” (v. 12). The song L’kha Dodi tells us that the reason these words are different is that God said שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד shamor v’zakhor b’dibbur eḥad ‘shamor and zakhor in a single utterance’. He said both words at once, as if he were speaking in stereo. Moses could not figure out how to write down both words simultaneously, so he put one in the Exodus version and one in the Deuteronomy version.

That’s different from the way many of the differences in the two versions of the Ten Commandments are explained. Since Moses himself speaks the Deuteronomy 5 version, one can imagine that, after four decades had passed and a new generation was about to cross into the promised land, he needed to focus on things in a somewhat different way than was appropriate at the time of the giving of the Torah.

The difference between “remember” and “observe,” however, is not explained in this way, or in any other; what explains the difference is that God said both, simultaneously. I’m here to tell you that there is a difference between the commandment to “remember” the Sabbath day and the commandment to “observe” it, and that Deuteronomy — or, if you prefer, Moses — changed it deliberately from “remember” to “observe,” from zakhor to shamor. Here’s why.

Deuteronomy has a tremendous focus on psychology. Deuteronomy cares not only what you do, but what you think. It’s very clear that making sure you think the right thing is a big part of what Deuteronomy is all about.

In Deuteronomy, the verb זכר zakhar ‘remember’, the one that’s used in the Exodus version of the Sabbath commandment, has a very specific meaning. You can see it in Deut 5:15, in the middle of Deuteronomy’s own Sabbath commandment:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.

For Deuteronomy, “remembering” means being aware of the past, and having that awareness affect how you are going to operate in the future. If you constantly are aware of the fact that you were a slave, you’ll remember what it was like to have been a slave, and you’ll appreciate the Sabbath and make sure that your family, your slaves, and even your animals don’t have to work on the Sabbath. You remember what it was like to be a slave, and you will not put them through that.

The verb שׁמר shamar ‘observe’ or more literally ‘keep’ is the word that Deuteronomy uses for what we might call remembering information — keeping track of things, making sure that you remember when the Sabbath is and how to observe it. Deuteronomy does not use zakhar for that kind of remembering, but shamar. You are guarding, keeping, protecting (all synonyms for שׁמר) the integrity of the information. That’s different from remembering what happened in the past.

What about the rest of the Bible? Do you “remember” the Sabbath or do you “keep” it? In fact, nowhere in the Bible but in the Exodus 20 version of the Ten Commandments, the original version, is there anything at all about “remembering” the Sabbath. “Keeping” the Sabbath is used nine other times in the Bible besides the Deuteronomy Sabbath commandment.

Three of them are in Isaiah 56, “Isaiah” of the Persian period. There more of them are in Leviticus, Lev 19:3 and 30 and Lev 26:2, close to the beginning and close to the end of what scholars call the Holiness Code, a priestly voice that (from my perspective and that of many others) wants to incorporate a Deuteronomic perspective into the priestly point of view. Finally, there are three more uses of it in Exodus 31. Israel Knohl, the “guru” of the Holiness School understanding of the Torah, marks these as “edited” by H. So presumably they too derive from the Deuteronomy version of the commandment.

Exod 31:16 tells us that the Israelites must “keep” (וְשָׁמְר֥וּ ve’shamru) the Sabbath, the Deuteronomy way, but v. 17 goes on to give the Exodus explanation:

For in six days YHWH made the Sky and the Earth, and on the seventh day He sabbathed and caught his breath.

The presumption, I think, is that history is built into the universe. The cosmic sabbath and the social justice sabbath are one and the same. Exodus says one thing and Deuteronomy another, but only the Holiness perspective was able to combine shamor and zakhor into dibbur eḥad, a single utterance.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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