Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Beshalah (Rambam)

Rambam on Honoring the Shabbat

This week’s parsha, Beshalah, is best known for its description of the actual flight from Egypt, of the splitting of the Red Sea, and the Song of the Sea—the archetypal song of praise in Jewish liturgy. But it also contains the first mention of the mitzvah of Shabbat. According to tradition, the Shabbat, along with a handful of other laws, was given at Marah (see Exod 15:25-26). And its appearance is manifested in the bi-polar rhythm of preparation and observance symbolized by the double portion of manna that fell on Fridays and the absence of manna on Shabbat itself. Already in the Creation chapter, Rashi comments that the words “And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it” (Gen 2:3) alludes to this rhythm. (See HY II: Beshalah, on the interesting custom in some Hasidic communities of omitting Tahanun from the regular prayers already on Friday morning, and the meaning of Shabbat Eve.)

The Shabbat, as a central halakhic institution, and as the first of the “appointed times,” occupies a place of honor at the beginning of Sefer Zemanim (“The Book of Times”), and occupies a full thirty chapters. Like almost every treatise in the Yad, Hilkhot Shabbat is a masterpiece of organization and clarity, of orderly, systematic presentation. I can think of no better or more lucid introduction to the laws of Shabbat (albeit he obviously could not anticipate the practical issues presented by modern technology). The initial chapter explains the basic categories and structure of Shabbat law; after a series of preliminaries in Chs. 2- 6, Rambam goes on to define the 39 categories of forbidden labor (avot melakhah), and to enumerate their implications in Chapters 7-20, while in Chapters 21-26 he explains the Rabbinic laws, divided into shevut, those things forbidden as a “fence” against Shabbat violation, and those things prohibited “so that Shabbat not be like any other day”—that is, weekday activities that violate the spirit or meta-halakhic goals of Shabbat; muktzeh, the rules against handling certain objects, fall under this rubric.

The last two chapters deal with the positive mitzvot of Shabbat: Chapter 29 deals with Kiddush, recited over wine, while in Chapter 30 he describes the two Rabbinic injunctions of kavod and oneg: to “honor” and “enjoy” or “take pleasure” from the Shabbat. He defines the former in 30.2:

What is meant by “honor” [of the Shabbat]? Concerning this the Sages said that a person is obligated to wash his face, hands and feet in warm water on the eve of Shabbat in order to honor the Shabbat. And he enwraps himself in tzitzit and sits with a serious demeanor longing to receive the face of the Shabbat, like one who goes out to greet a king. The early Sages would gather their disciples on Shabbat eve and enwrap themselves and say, “Let us go out to greet Shabbat the King.”

One is struck here by the fact that we find, couched in the language of halakhic obligation, a description of a ceremony very similar to what was to become, among the Kabbalistic circle in Tzfat four hundred years later, the Kabbalat Shabbat service—which from there spread to the entire Jewish people. Not only does one honor Shabbat by being freshly bathed (or at least cleaned) and dressed in finery, by a tidy house and a nicely laid table (see §§3-6 in this same chapter), but by actively welcoming the Shabbat upon the moment of its arrival, as if it were an actual person, an important guest whom one goes out to greet. (Some people, Yemenites or Hasidim, taking this Rambam literally, wear a tallit at Kabbalat Shabbat.) This halakhah in Rambam is based on a Talmudic passage (the story about Rav Hanina at Shabbat 119a), but the fact that he chooses to bring it as halakhah indicates that he identified with it and it spoke to him in a deep way.

Equally interesting is his use of specifically masculine imagery: “Shabbat the King.” We are familiar, from the poem Lekha Dodi, with the imagery of Shabbat as bride and as queen—clearly alluding to the feminine image of the Shekhinah. And indeed, the very same page in the Talmud from which Rambam drew the above description also contains a saying of R. Yannai who used to go out on Erev Shabbat and say “Come, O bride, Come, O bride” (compare Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 262.3, which brings both). Why did Rambam omit the feminine here? Was it a deliberate choice? Was there perhaps a certain puritan element in Rambam’s personality that extended even to imagery? And was this in turn the influence of the Muslim milieu in which he grew up and lived, which was more abstemious than the Christian Europe in which the Kabbalah first flourished?

A different train of thought: I once heard Rav Aharon Lichtenstein quote the Rav as noting that this passage in some way parallels the laws of prayer. The manner in which one prepares for the Shabbat, standing up to greet it, is analogous to the way in which one prepares for prayer and stands before the Shekhinah, so-to-speak, in the Amidah. Are we to understand that God Himself is somehow manifested or embodied in the persona of the Shabbat? Or perhaps that Shabbat is a propitious time for meeting with God, like the hour of tefillah on ordinary days? (This is also a recurrent theme in Hasidism.)

On Shabbat and Israel

The final passage in Hilkhot Shabbat presents certain theological ideas, and reiterates the central importance of Shabbat. 30.15:

Shabbat and idolatry are each considered as tantamount to all the mitzvot of the Torah together. For the Shabbat is the sign between the Holy One blessed be He and between us, forever. Hence, one who violates the other mitzvot is considered as being among the wicked ones of Israel. But one who violates Shabbat publicly is like one who worships stars and constellations. And both of them are considered like idolators in every respect.

Therefore the prophet praises and says, “Happy is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds fast to this; he who guards the Shabbat from violating it…” {Isa 56:2]. And whoever observes Shabbat in accordance with its laws, and honors it, and enjoys it according to his power—his reward in this world is explicated in the Tradition [i.e., in the prophetic books], over and beyond the reward stored up for him in the World to Come. As is said, “Then you shall take delight n the Lord, and ride upon the high places of the earth, and I shall feed you the inheritance of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” [Isa 58:14].

I have long pondered over a certain phrase in the Kiddush for Shabbat: namely, “for You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations.” It is clear that each of the Festivals commemorates a unique event in the history of the Jewish nation and its relationship to God; hence it is only natural that their Kiddush should begin with phrases referring to Jewish chosenness: “He who has chosen us from all nations and uplifted us above all tongues and sanctified us with His commandments; You have given us [this festival day, etc.“. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the very timing of the festivals is dependent upon the sanctification of the New Moon performed by the Court of Israel (see last week’s HY); hence the concluding formula of the blessing, “He who sanctifies Israel and the times”.

But the Shabbat is a celebration of Creation, a holy day that relates to God as God of the Cosmos; and, in the second set of tablets, as reflecting the idea that man was not born for work alone, as conveying a universal message of human freedom. The Exodus is paradigm for humankind, of God who liberates the enslaved and gives them a weekly day of rest as a moral act, not only as Author of the redemptive history of Israel. Two key phrases in the Kiddush speak of Shabbat as “a memorial of the Acts of Creation" and as “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.” Why then the allusion to the covenant?

And indeed, there are versions of the Shabbat Evening Kiddush which omit this phrase. The Kabbalists favored a text which omits these words, so that the 35 words of Vayekhulu and the 35 words of the blessing of Kiddush make a total of 70, a number of profound mystical significance. This custom is accepted among many Sephardim as well as by some Polish and Galician Hasidim. Interestingly, some of my neo-Hasidic friends have adopted this version as well, because they want to read the Shabbat Kiddush as a universalist theological statement. For some time, I have myself wrestled with the decision as to whether or not to change to reciting that version of Kiddush.

But Shabbat nevertheless has a unique covenantal meaning for Israel. As Rambam says here, based on many passages in the Talmud, the observance of Shabbat is almost a central defining act in Judaism, alongside the rejection of idolatry—so much so that its violation is tantamount to heathenism. (Although one should note: many contemporary poskim hold that, in the modern age, the Shabbat violator hasn’t read himself out of Jewish people in the same way as in the past, simply because in today’s social reality the Shabbat is no longer the public norm of the entire Jewish people. Today’s Shabbat violator is considered as one who was, so to speak, “taken into captivity in his infancy,” who never really had the opportunity to learn of traditional Jewish life.)

On the other hand, there is the rather strange statement in Sanhedrin 58b that a non-Jew who observes the Shabbat is culpable of the death penalty. (I once knew a candidate for conversion, who was even studying in a yeshivah, who so long as he was halakhically a Gentile piously smoked one cigarette every Shabbat so as to not fall into this category.)

Ultimately, my decision to retain the traditional Ashkenazi nusah was based on two reasons. First, family tradition, not a small thing in Judaism: the knowledge that I am reciting the identical Kiddush as my pious and learned grandfather, who studied with the great scholars of Lithuania a century ago (and whose 56th Yahrzeit falls this Shabbat). Second, and more important, the sense that the Shabbat, including the type of cosmic awareness it symbolizes, is still ultimately a unique gift for Israel.

We dream of a day when all mankind will be united in God-knowledge, and will serve Him together. The universal Shabbat, symbolizing both God as Creator and God as Liberator from all forms of bondage, is doubtless a part of that vision—but we know that it is as yet only a distant dream. Those who speak of the immanent, or even actualized, dawning of a New Age, of a new level of human consciousness, of a higher awareness immanent among all mankind, are, to put it bluntly, deluding themselves. Would that it were otherwise. Such higher consciousness is shared by only the tiniest segment of mankind. If anything, the new millennium seems to coincide with a new age of religious warfare, of Moloch-like violence and intolerance in the name of the One God, with wild talk of world domination, of killing and destroying all that is different, even of bombs identified with a particular religion (as if any bomb could be an instrument of holiness or of magnifying God’s Name in the world!).

Sadly, that Great Day is as distant as ever. Rashi’s comment on the first verse of the Shema: “that the Lord, who is at present our God and not the god of the nations, shall in the future be the One God,” is as true today as when it was written. Or, as Franz Rosenzweig put it, we too must continue waiting patiently, preserving what we have and passing it on to the next generation, with forbearance, patience and hope.


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