Finally. After nine and a half pages (yes, pages, not weeks) of halakhic discussion which I have sometimes experienced as tortuous and torturous, we are at long last thrown a bone. Someone has something nice to say about Shabbat:
God said to Moses: I have a fine gift in my secret treasure chamber, and her name is Shabbat. I want to give her to Israel, go and tell them.
I like this, it really is how it feels, it’s a gift. And it is a gift that is good, that is fine. It is also something that is mysterious and elusive, its origins are shrouded in secrecy and hiddenness.
It is a relief to hear this, to be reminded that in grappling with Shabbat we are grappling with the construction of a detailed and elaborate sacred space. It could become easy to forget this, to focus on the laws purely for their own sake, to presume that the laws are the essence, to forget that they are signposts guiding us towards something more profound.
And it goes both ways. One could read the poetry and liturgy of Shabbat and think that one has a feel for it, that one has grasped its essence. And perhaps it is true that one may be able to relate to it from the outside, to connect it with other similar experiences of peace, of rest, of silence. But for most of us, it is the laws, the detail, which create the mood and atmosphere of the day.
To experience Shabbat is to live it, to pay attention to it, to inhabit it like a complex piece of music or literature.
The Talmud develops these themes further, in qualifying the type of secret involved in Shabbat:
The experience of its reward is not something that it is possible to reveal.
It takes work to get inside Shabbat, perhaps what I said just now is not quite right, the laws and restrictions are not enough on their own to generate the feeling and spirit of Shabbat. They can create an important space, they can present us with an opportunity. But we must then do something with that space, we must go out to greet Shabbat – come, my beloved – we must welcome it into our hearts and our homes.
Shabbat, paradoxically, can be quite exhausting. We must engage our spirit with the day, we must pour something of ourselves into it, only then can we taste the deep rejuvenation and re-orientation that it bequeaths us.
Our bodies may be left tired in the aftermath of this spiritual exertion, but they can recover, they are good at taking care of themselves. The spirit is not so clever, we must consciously and intentionally tend to it, mindfully provide it with the nourishment and homeliness it needs to re-root.
Isaiah depicts this progression well, the path from restriction through engagement towards reward:
If you keep your feet from breaking Shabbat, from acting out your will on My holy day, and if you call Shabbat a delight, dedicated to enhancing God’s Holiness…
If you honour it by avoiding your usual patterns, by giving up your restless searching, your endless empty chatter…
Then you will experience profound joy in the Divine, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the earth. I will feed you from the rich inheritance and traditions of Jacob your forefather, the Divine Word will have made its mark. (58:13-14)
The motif of the gift continues, Rav Hisda was giving gifts to anyone who could share with him some of Rav’s profound teachings. He gave one to Rava Bar Mehasseya, for sharing the secret of Shabbat with him:
To know that I, God, am the one who facilitates the sacred in your lives. (Exodus 31:13)
But he regrets not having more gifts, for he wishes to give him another one on hearing his follow up:
Fine wool is only precious to its wearer.
The finer things in life are not obviously pleasurable at first, it takes time and patience to develop a taste for them. Perhaps sometimes it takes abstinence to really appreciate them, the depth of my love for Shabbat is in part due to the vacuum I often experienced in the periods when I tried to live without it. I don’t mean that I was depressed or unable to cope with life, simply that the absence of Shabbat was very potent and tangible. I have a memory of walking through a shopping mall late on a Saturday afternoon and sensing something empty and bleak about it – was this supposed to compare to the exalted experience of people singing mizmor le’david or yedid nefesh at seuda shlishit?
It could not, it never really lasted; with my appreciation for Shabbat renewed, I would always find myself drawn to it once more.
The word abstinence is key here, I always suspected Shabbat couldn’t be bettered, that its richness couldn’t be matched. But I felt compelled to test this hypothesis, to embrace the ascetic ideal of trying to live without it.
It is interesting to me that this poetic flourish is preceded by some reflection on the essence of the Divine. We have just been talking about how God is sometimes named, simply, ‘Peace’. Peace is Divine, to experience peace is to both respond to the Divine Will and to taste something of its essence.
He is also named ‘The Faithful God’, here it is his commitment and dedication to his creatures that we might learn from.
These two values, peace and faith, seem to find their embodiment in the Divine gift that is Shabbat. It takes tremendous faith, and I mean something more akin to courage than to belief, to abstain on Shabbat from pursuing one’s material needs, from tending to one’s sometimes highly critical business matters.
But if we manage it, and if we make the further move of faith involved in really opening up emotionally to the poetry and imagery of Shabbat, to thoroughly engaging with its songs, prayers and traditions, then a deep and powerful peace will be our reward. Our spirit might experience something that is genuinely called rest, our soul might actually manage to breathe and restore itself.
Going back further, right back to creation in fact, we are given insight into the spirit that lies at the core of existence:
Any judge who arbitrates one ruling in accordance with the highest standard of truth, even for just one hour, Scripture considers that he has become a partner with the Divine in the act of creation.
This is such a rich idea, but what I particularly like is the connection between judgment, truth and creation.
In the act of judging, truth is created. God did not, could not, have accounted for all possible truths at the beginning of time. Truth was left incomplete, in gestation, in potentiality. And when a person takes upon himself the responsibility to seriously wrestle with truth and to eventually come to his most honest judgment of what is true, he has helped along the creative process with which Genesis begins.
Judaism is certainly a religion of Law. But we sometimes seem to forget that there also needs to be judgment, to be a deeply considered questioning of the manner and spirit in which the Law is applied. Truth can never be finalised in a text, or even in a tradition. It must always be rooted in life, in the subjective domain of the responsible human, of the one who wishes to partner with God in creation.
On Shabbat we make the following request in our prayers:
Satisfy us with Your Goodness, and make us joyful in Your salvation.
And may you purify our hearts so that we may serve you in Truth.
Shabbat is about rest and joy, about peace and rejuvenation, about re-rooting and re-orienting ourselves. But it is also about truth, about cleansing the spirit so that it is capable of the courage and strength needed to do battle with the forces of untruth in the world. It is perhaps about learning truth through peace, about the deeper and more honest truth that emerges from the spirit that is not ragged from the chase that sometimes constitutes life.
May we attain all of this through our day of rest, may Truth, Faith and Peace rest upon our being like fine wool, may the bounty of the Divine treasure chest be revealed to us all.