My first impression of Massekhet Shabbat was not a favourable one. The opening Mishna is a dense and arcane listing of the ways in which one might transgress the prohibition against transporting objects from the private to the public domain on Shabbat. This is already disappointing, there is no gentle transition from the Biblical or conceptual roots of Shabbat into its detailed laws, no opening musing on the spirit it creates, no encouragement to ‘taste it and see that it is good’ (Ps.19). Rather, we are just thrown in at the deep end, and the feeling is quite disorientating: my love for Shabbat is not finding any mirroring echo in the text.
And it seems to get worse. The model for the prohibitions is the case of a man giving charity to a poor person. What we are presented with is a list of all the ways in which one must not give charity.
Gone is the spirit of Isaiah 56, wherein charity and Shabbat sit side by side with each other as the embodiment of the Divine Ideal. Here they are presented as conflicting forces, and I think we should be deeply bothered by that.
(As an aside, we should also be bothered by how easily a lot of people might learn this daf and not even notice this, how a certain approach to Talmud looks only for halakhic details, without any feel or sense for the context of their presentation. It is too easy to not ask the right questions because we are seduced by the intellectual challenge the Talmud sets up, by the scholastic thinking with which it sometimes assaults our psyche.)
So, can we redeem this Mishna?
Let us begin with the assertion that the Rabbis assumed that we were already deeply familiar with Isaiah’s views on the subject, and with all the Biblical material which connects Shabbat with creation, rest and breathing space. And I don’t think this is too far-fetched – I have often been struck by how the Rabbis have Biblical verses and phrases at their fingertips, they are genuinely immersed in them; they form the backbone of their thought.
Ok, but doesn’t this just make the conflict even more perplexing, isn’t it even harder to understand why they are set up as opposites?
Perhaps we can offer the following interpretation: In the Rabbinic worldview, there is indeed a conflict between Shabbat and charity, and at this point they wish to emphasise that they are coming down on the side of Shabbat.
There may be an ethical core which gives meaning and energy to the religious project, but that is not the same as saying that charity will always trump ritual, that doing for others is always more important than doing or creating for oneself.
We might read the Mishna as a discourse on boundaries, as an unconscious expression of the need to partition space for the self.
We have spoken lately about narcissism, of excess concern for the self, of a failure to engage with reality.
What gets less press is the opposite problem: an excess of concern for the outer world and a neglect of the self.
The self needs looking after, a functional personality requires a certain level of energy to maintain its structural integrity. And it also needs some love, some warmth, some attention.
If a person directs all of their love outwards, investing all of their energy and concern in charitable projects or other family members – including their children – they may end up paying a heavy psychological price. They may be left with inner resources that are too stretched and too thin to cope with the adversity that comes their way in life, they may find that there is actually a weary emptiness at the point where their confidence and self-esteem should be.
And without this genuine inner conviction of self worth a person will not get far, they will be forever chasing the wrong shadows, living the desires of others, driven by a misplaced fantasy of what they ought to be.
To live authentically is to be guided by a genuine expression of our personality and being, by the voice of our deepest calling. And this requires courage and a specifically inner confidence.
It’s important to note that this is a very different beast from the bombastic and loud confidence which people sometimes manifest and project in their dealings with their outer environment. I might go so far as to call that type of confidence compensatory; it is sustained by detachment and dissociation from the doubt and perplexity which characterise the attempt to maintain full contact with the roots of one’s personality.
Shrill confidence is a mask; an obliviousness to the subtle and multi layered complexities of life. Genuine thoughtfulness is marked by consideration, by trying to gently feel one’s way towards resolution.
And so the Mishna adopts this view, that Shabbat is about the need for spiritual rest and rejuvenation, about the need to maintain energy and attention for the self. It is about redirecting us inwards, even if this means that our charitable instincts must be questioned and temporarily stifled.
There is an image depicted of a person bound to their home, to their private domain, and they are being instructed to diminish their interaction with what goes on outside their doors and windows. Do not try to give to that outer world, and do not try to take from it either. Rather, focus on your own home, put your own affairs in order and use the atmosphere of rest to ensure that your inner battery is recharged.
We read today that God rested on the seventh day. I think we must understand this as teaching us that everyone needs rest, that every spirit would otherwise work itself towards exhaustion and dissolution.
In Kiddush we use the term ‘Vayinafash’, which is probably best translated as ‘He gave Himself Spirit’ or ‘He refreshed His Spirit’. Rest is not simply cessation from activity, it is about giving the inner a chance to breathe, allowing it to recover and re-root.
So this very problematic Mishna might actually be teaching us something profound about what Shabbat is and what Shabbat isn’t. Religion might be about ethics, but ethical beings require energy and soul, they must be connected to something authentic within themselves. They can never just be automatons acting out a clear set of external instructions – that image is both conceptually flawed and pragmatically unsustainable.
On Shabbat we look to restore this connection, to give it the water and light that it needs to grow. We relinquish some of the omnipotence that charity gives us, but in the humility of this renunciation we might just find that something new and profound is able to gestate.