Which day is it? (Shabbos 69)

The community of Zolochiv was in a quandary.  Rav Michel, the town’s beloved rabbi, had suffered from a fall and been knocked unconscious.  He lay in bed for many weeks, but eventually recovered, much to the relief of all the townsfolk.  It was a warm summer’s Thursday evening and life in Zolochiv appeared to be getting back to normal.  All of a sudden, they see their rabbi, dressed in his finest Shabbos garb en route to shul.  What’s more, everyone he passed, he greeted with a warm, ‘Good Shabbos!’

The community was bemused by Rav Michel’s strange behaviour.  Finally, the gabbai summoned up the courage to ask the rabbi what was going on.  To his surprise, Rav Michel insisted that Shabbos was about to begin.  No amount of explanation would convince him otherwise.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, the rabbi refused to believe the community members that he must have lost track of time while he was recovering from his terrible fall.

At a loss as to where to go from here, they reached out to Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, the rabbi of nearby, Brody.  Rabbi Kluger listened to them with great concern and compassion and agreed to meet with their rabbi.  The two rabbis sat down to discuss the matter and emerged an hour later.

‘What did I tell you?’ exclaimed Rav Michel. ‘Rabbi Kluger agrees with me!’  Rabbi Shlomo nodded in the direction of the town’s rabbi and turned to the people. ‘Yes, your rabbi is correct.  And in order to demonstrate his correct position once and for all, I myself will stay in Zolochiv for Shabbos.  Let us make a Shabbos dinner like no other.  We will hold it in the shul and invite the entire community!’

The townsfolk shrugged their shoulders and started to wonder what had happened to the world.  But, when Rabbi Shlomo Kluger requests your presence at Shabbos dinner, you don’t refuse.  And so they all donned their Shabbos best and headed off – Thursday evening – to the Shabbaton.

Rabbi Kluger led the celebrations with singing, feasting, and l’chaims galore.  One l’chaim followed the next and Rav Michel was happier than he’d ever been.  Finally, they’d all come to their senses.  Rabbi Kluger encouraged him to say l’chaim with each of his community members.  It didn’t take long before Rav Michel had imbibed more than he could handle.  He fell asleep right at the table.  Rabbi Kluger arranged for him to be carried to the couch to rest.

‘Now, dear friends,’ announced Rabbi Kluger, ‘I ask that you all return here tomorrow evening.’ The townsfolk understood the brilliance of Rabbi Shlomo Kluger.  The all went their respective ways and returned to the shul on the true Shabbos eve.  As they took their seats, Rabbi Kluger had Rav Michel placed in his seat at the head of the table.  He tapped him on the shoulder and stirred him from his deep slumber.  They finished the meal with great joy.  And henceforth, Rav Michel would tell the story of how Rabbi Kluger managed to convince the members of the Zolochiv community of the correct day of Shabbat!

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא: הָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ אֵימָתַי שַׁבָּת, מוֹנֶה שִׁשָּׁה יָמִים וּמְשַׁמֵּר יוֹם אֶחָד. חִיָּיא בַּר רַב אוֹמֵר: מְשַׁמֵּר יוֹם אֶחָד, וּמוֹנֶה שִׁשָּׁה. בְּמַאי קָמִיפַּלְגִי — מָר סָבַר כִּבְרִיָּיתוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, וּמָר סָבַר כְּאָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן. אָמַר רָבָא: בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם עוֹשֶׂה לוֹ כְּדֵי פַרְנָסָתוֹ [בַּר מֵהָהוּא יוֹמָא]. וְהָהוּא יוֹמָא לֵימוּת?! דְּעָבֵיד מֵאֶתְמוֹל שְׁתֵּי פַרְנָסוֹת. וְדִילְמָא מֵאֶתְמוֹל שַׁבָּת הֲוַאי! אֶלָּא כָּל יוֹם וָיוֹם עוֹשֶׂה לוֹ פַּרְנָסָתוֹ, אֲפִילּוּ הָהוּא יוֹמָא. וְהָהוּא יוֹמָא בְּמַאי מִינְּכַר לֵיהּ? בְּקִידּוּשָׁא וְאַבְדָּלְתָּא

Rav Huna said: One who was walking along the way or in the desert, and he does not know which day is Shabbat, he counts six days and then observes one day as Shabbat. Chiya bar Rav says: He first observes one day as Shabbat and then he counts six weekdays. With regard to what do they disagree? One Sage, held: It is like the creation of the world, weekdays followed by Shabbat. And the other Sage held: It is like Adam, the first man, who was created on the sixth day. He observed Shabbat followed by the six days of the week. Rava said: The person who lost track of Shabbat and treats one day a week as Shabbat, each day may make enough food to sustain himself, except for that day which he designated as Shabbat.  But on that day shall we let him die? Rather, it means that the day before he makes twice the amount of food. But perhaps the day before was actually Shabbat!  Rather, on each and every day he makes enough food to sustain himself for that day, including on that day that he designated as Shabbat. But then how is that day distinguishable as Shabbat?  By virtue of kiddush and havdalah.

Right now, during Coronavirus, we’re all at home.  Some of us are fortunate to be able to work from home and have some sort of daily and weekly structure in our lives.  For others, after a while, one day seems to blend into the next.  It’s difficult to remember which day of the week it is.  Every day feels the same.  Weekdays, weekends, Sunday, Monday, who can tell the difference anymore?

Given the absence of a smartphone, it’s easy to see how Rav Huna’s character could get confused and forget which day was Shabbos.  The solution is to pick a day and make it Shabbos.  Nevertheless, that individual is still allowed to work on his Shabbos just enough to survive.  For if he were to do any additional work on any other day in preparation for his personal day, that other day might be the real Shabbos, and he would end up breaking Shabbos by engaging in non-essential work!

And so if he’s doing exactly the same thing every day, what makes his Shabbos any different?  Kiddush and Havdalah.  Those mitzvos are the key to making Shabbos special.  Why?  Because they’re positive activities.  Sadly, when many people think about Shabbos, all they think of is what’s forbidden.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.

But that’s the opposite attitude of the way Shabbos was meant to be.  Shabbos is an oasis in a week of monotonous homogeneity.  Every day, we get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed, get up, go to work . . . Shabbos comes along and breaks the monotony of life.  Suddenly, we have one day that’s different.

It’s not different on account of what you can’t do.  The purpose of the restrictions is not to make our lives difficult, but to free us from the shackles of daily living.  Come Friday afternoon, ready or not, completed or not, all your work must be put aside until Saturday night.  The phone can ring, but you’re no longer enslaved to answering it.  The email and text messages may ping, but you’ve now unburdened yourself of those stressors.  They’ll just have to wait.  Shabbos lifts the weight and anxiety of the world off your shoulders and allows you to breathe for twenty five hours.

That’s why the Gemara points to kiddush and havdalah as examples of what makes Shabbos different to the other days of the week.  These two positive Shabbos mitzvos are no less important than any of the ‘negative’ mitzvos.  On the contrary, once we appreciate the purpose of the negative mitzvos – to redeem us from the slavery of weekday living and create a weekly island in time that we can escape to – we understand that the positive acts play a starring role.  Your weeknight dinner is full of disturbances and interruptions from occupational commitments, schoolwork, mobile phones ringing, and the lures of TV and other electronic entertainment.  On Shabbos, you can make kiddush in a state of peace and tranquility, knowing that there will be no interruption.

Kiddush and Havdalah are the clearest examples of the true purpose of Shabbos.  To bring positivity, tranquility, and serenity into our lives.  But kiddush and havdalah are just the starting point for those acts of positivity.  Shabbos is the day when we’re free to talk to one another.  Shabbos is the day when we’re free to learn Torah.  To sit at the dining table and sing.  To spend time with our families.

The twenty first century has brought many incredible technological innovations that have helped humankind beyond belief.  But along with those advances, we’ve increased our stress levels beyond levels ever imagined in the past, as we try to stay on top of a world that never stops.

When we were running around and dealing with all these fast-paced stresses, many of us were just starting to appreciate the gift of Shabbos.  With the tragedy of coronavirus, we’re now confined to our homes and unable to keep up the extreme go-go-go of our former lives.  And yet, the message and gift of Shabbos is no less meaningful and helpful to our mental health.  Even when we’re not running around and every day feels like it might be Shabbos, the real Shabbos is an incredible oasis.  Suddenly, the monotony of life has been transformed into an island of spiritual bliss and positive activity.

Now is the real time for us to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos.  May your Shabbos be infused with positivity now and throughout your life!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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