The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Ki Tissa
"To Observe the Sabbath"
Professor Moshe Hallamish
Department of Philosophy
"Six days work may be done but on the seventh day there shall be
a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord... And the Children of Israel shall
keep the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath..." (Exodus 31:15-16)
At least two points in these verses demand our consideration: A. The
concepts of holy and secular ; B. "Observing" (la-'asot)
A. The concept of "Holiness" can be explained , somewhat generally, as filling an object with a unique content or quality. God as Holy (for example, in Leviticus 19:2) is defined by Rudolf Otto as He who is "totally other" (Das ganz andere). This is the Holy One to whom, because of His majestic prominence and exaltedness we are fearful of drawing near or touching. Likewise, this is the attitude toward holy people in the Torah, one who is uplifted from among other people; we at most touch the hem of his garment or the back of his hand. Even inanimate objects defined as "holy" are forbidden to our touch and others require special care and reverence.
In sum, God is Holy - and there is no other like Him; a woman is holy
to her husband - and to him alone, dedicated to him through Kiddushin.
The priest is holy - dedicated to fulfilling the functions of the priesthood.
Human life is holy - because the body is filled with the divine spirit
which makes makes Man "in Our image and after Our likeness."
Even the land can be holy, because it is forbidden to perform any of the
"abominations" of the gentiles upon it (Leviticus 18: 27-28).
It therefore follows that anyone who violates holiness empties the holy
object of its special content as it were, and creates a state of hollowness
(Hebrew - halul, also halal), and in Rabbinic Hebrew, profanes the
object (hullin). A murderer profanes his victim - the dead
body is called a halal - since the Divine Spirit flees the body;
one who defiles the holiness of a priest - profanes him; one who performs
labor on the Sabbath - profanes it (this point will be elaborated further
on). It is in this light that our Sages interpreted the outcry of our father
Abraham: "It is unworthy of You (halilah Lecha), shall
the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18: 25), to mean:
"It is a profanation of Yourself" (hullin hu Lecha)
[see Rashi ad loc.] The essence of God as judge would have been
emptied of its content if He had acted unjustly towards the people of Sodom.
Of course, it is also possible to bestow holiness. Man may aspire to
a higher spiritual - religious level and become holy (Lev. 19:2 ; Jeremiah
1:5); Man can make an object holy by "sanctifying it to the One above"
in Halachic terms (maqdish oto le-gavoa).
B. "And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath" (Ex. 31:16). What is the meaning of "to observe" (Hebrew - la'asot - lit. = to do or to make)? In the perception of the Torah the Sabbath is invested with a unique essential content (therefore, it is holy!); it is "Holy to the Lord" (Ex. 31:15). While the other six days of the week are to be used by man for the benefit of his corporeal and basic human needs, he is obligated to dedicate the Sabbath to his spiritual benefit, that is: " A holy gathering" (Mikra Kodesh), a congregation of people (compare: "and all the guests (hakru'im) that were with him" ( 1 Kings 1: 41)ý , for the purpose of reading (kri'ah) the Holy Scriptures (compare 2 Kings 4:23; Isaiah 1:13).
Where does it all lead us? The term "Children of Israel" (Ex. 31:16) is not simply an external sign which identifies them as unique from others; it is a positive expression which stems from their acceptance of the yoke of the Torah and its commandments. This obligation is not innate , but must be acquired through study of the laws and commandments. In order to make time available to the community, the family and the individual, so as not to disturb the learning process all labor was prohibited on the Sabbath. The prohibition of labor is but a means to the end of reading the Holy Scriptures, thus preserving the special nature of the Children of Israel.
Consequently, one can pass the entire Sabbath without performing the
least bit of labor, in the tradition ordained by Scripture and by the most
stringent decrees of the rabbis, and still not keep the Sabbath in its
true essence. The Sabbath does have a negative aspect -- to refrain
from performing labor -- but the positive aspect, "to observe the
Sabbath" is the important one. On the Sabbath, Man separates himself
from the secular, profane life and attaches himself to the source of the
To clarify this point further we will devote a moment to the meaning of the Hebrew verb, 'asah, in the Bible. In a number of places the meaning is to bring something to its perfection, to its destination or purpose. For example in Judges 13:15 : "And we will make ready (na'aseh ) a kid for you". The meaning is not to create the kid but to prepare it to be eaten (compare 2 Samuel 12:4). Similarly we can understand other usages: "And he did not do (wash) his feet and did not do (trim) his beard" (2 Samuel 19:25) ; "made artistically" (ma'aseh hoshev - Ex. 26:31); "that it might bring forth (la'asot) branches and bear fruit" (Ez. 17:8) and so on.
We can now conclude that the "doing of labor" ('asiat melachah
) is not necessarily related to a physical effort . One can light a match
with a minimum of effort , thus bringing the potential of the match to
reality and therefore performing labor. The Sabbath Day was created to
fulfill the spiritual - religious side of man. One who fills the Sabbath
with this proper content - "does" the Sabbath and makes it holy.
One who does not profanes the Sabbath and "empties" it (mehalleleha
- Ex. 31:14) of holiness.
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