Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Torah)

“And the Seventh Day Shall be Holy to You”

Although the main subject of this (and next) week’s portion is the actual construction of the Sanctuary, as instructed in Terumah and Tetzaveh, it opens with a brief section concerning the Shabbat. This fact prompted me to attempt an overview of the treatment of the Shabbat in the Torah generally. Of all the subjects appearing in the Torah, the Shabbat is perhaps the one treated most frequently, and in the largest number of separate parshiyot, each one of which presents a slightly different aspect of the Shabbat. As mentioned last week, the story of the Golden Calf and the “epiphany in the cleft of the rock” is framed by two brief sections on the Sabbath—and there are many more throughout the Torah. The obvious question is: why are there so many separate parshiyot on the Sabbath, and what does each one teach us? A close reading of each of these sections, and reflection on the unique resonance and nuance found in each one, may shed light upon this institution as a whole. What follows is a survey of the Shabbat portions in the Torah, with a brief comment on each one, in an attempt to gain an overall, synthetic picture of the Shabbat. I doubt that I have anything radically new to say: these questions have of course been dealt with extensively by Hazal, in the tannaitic midrashim and elsewhere; and, in totally different ways, by academic Bible scholarship. Nevertheless, their presentation may prompt new insights:

a) The Sabbath, or seventh day, appears as culmination of the Creation story, with the striking image of God ceasing from his labor and resting on that day (Gen 2:1-3), and both “blessing” and “hallowing” the Shabbat;

b) The story of the manna, with its strictures against gathering manna on the Sabbath and the double portion given on the sixth day, “that I might test them, whether they will walk in my Torah or not” (Exod 16:4-5, 22-27). Here, we already have the motif of Shabbat observance as a central religious discipline and “test” of loyalty to God, as well as the special character of Friday as the day of preparation for Shabbat, with its double portion of food held in readiness for the “non-gathering” day that follows. Interestingly, the Rabbinic tradition, in order to justify these sanctions, posits that the Shabbat must have been “pre-given” at an earlier point: namely, at Marah, where God “placed before them there statutes and law” (Exod 15:25; Rashi ad loc., quoting Sanhedrin 56b and Mekhilta);

c) The Fourth of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai (20:8-11) is of course central. It contains two or three striking emphases: ‘”do not do any labor… you or your son or daughter or your manservant or maidservant… because God made the heavens and earth in six days.” Three points seem particularly important here: the explicit prohibition against all labor; its applicability to all levels of society, even servants and domestic animals; and the explicit link of the Shabbat to the Creation, as a day “blessed” and “made holy” by God (two verbs already used about the Shabbat in the verses in Genesis; Rashi in Genesis notes the dialectic between “holiness” and “blessing” on the Shabbat, viz. the strictures and prohibitions coupled with the enjoyment and pleasure characteristic of the Shabbat).

d) A brief verse, in the condensed codex of laws sometimes referred to as the Book of the Covenant: “six days shall you do your work, and on the seventh you shall rest, that your cow and donkey may rest, and the son of your maidservant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Exod 23:12). One is struck here by the mention of Shabbat rest directed specifically toward those holding a subservient position within society: farm animals, servants, and strangers, without any mention of “you and your son and daughter.” As if to say: We know that the established “baalebatim” (householders) will take good care of their own rest; but one must take care for those who are less fortunate.

e) Exodus 34:21: another isolated verse, in a chapter roughly parallel to Exodus 23. This time, the explanatory phrase reads, “[even] in plowing and harvest time you should rest.” A phrase reinforcing the mandatory, unequivocal nature of the Shabbat, and saying “no exceptions for economic emergencies” (and who like us at the turn of the 20th century know of the dangers of workaholism?)

f) Exodus 31:12-17: a fuller section on the Shabbat, containing three or four important new concepts: the Sabbath as holy (and not only hallowed by God); stringent sanctions (i.e., the death penalty) for its violation or “profanation”; the Sabbath as a covenant, and the Sabbath as a sign. Two highly significant, pregnant theological terms.

g) Exodus 35:1-3. The mention in this weeks’ portion. See below.

h) Leviticus 19:3: A passing, three-word reference to the Shabbat in Kedoshim, the ”Holiness Chapter” or introduction to the “Holiness Code,” where it is paired with (equated to? contrasted with? weighed against?) reverence for ones parents.

i) Leviticus 23:3 —The basic components of the Shabbat are mentioned in the context of the various festivals or “appointed times” of the annual cycle. Is it perhaps mentioned here simply to make the point that it, too, belongs to this grouping?

j) Leviticus 26:2. Again, a one-liner, this time juxtaposing Shabbat with the Temple, and the reverence due it.

k) Numbers 28:9-10—The two lambs offered as an additional sacrifice on the Shabbat; listed here in the context of the festival cycle. It is interesting that, unlike all the other “appointed times,” no rams or bullocks are offered on the Shabbat, but only two lambs, as in the weekday tamid (fixed offering).

l) In Deuteronomy, interestingly, no mention is made of the Shabbat at all throughout the summary of law that forms the main body of the Mishneh Torah in Chs. 12-26, nor is it mentioned in the blessings and curses in 27:11-26, which include many “cardinal” sins, especially those that may be done in secret (as may Shabbat labor). It only appears in the recapitulation of the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:12-15), with two notable and much-commented changes from the version in Exodus: the use of the verb shamor (“observe”) rather than zakhor (“remember”); and the social rationale given for its observance: “and you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

To return to our weekly portion: the Rabbis ponder exactly why the Shabbat appears here. The conventional answer, given by Rashi, is: to teach us that the construction of the sanctuary does not override the Sabbath. Rav Soloveitchik once elaborated this, speaking in terms of the contrast between grandiose, elaborate, public ceremonials, and the modest, daily, concrete discipline of the mitzvot, particularly those that involve refraining from certain common actions or bodily pleasures (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, laws governing sex). He noted that, unlike the tendency in certain schools in modern-day Judaism, which make the synagogue the center, Judaism has been traditionally based far more upon the latter.

But at the same time as it is counterpoised to it, the Shabbat also corresponds to the Temple. There is, perhaps, even a mystical correspondence: the 39 forms of labor that constitute the halakhic framework for the Shabbat are those required for the construction or ongoing operation of the Temple ritual (and possibly the gematria of 39, tal, dew, also alludes to the divine plenitude, symbolized by dew, so characteristic of the Shabbat). A. J. Heschel, in his beautiful little book on the Sabbath, indeed refers to this day as a “Temple in time.”

A Habad text takes note of the passive voice in the phrase, “tei’aseh melakhah”—“ six days labor shall be done by you.” The “Baal ha-Tanya,” the Rabbi of Lyady, comments that, if you observe Shabbat on the proper spiritual plane, your attitude to the world of labor is “by the way”— as if in an aside—and not as the center of life (Likkutei Torah).

The verse about refraining from Sabbath labor is followed here by the enigmatic addition, “you shall not kindle fire on the Shabbat day” (35:3). The Rabbis ponder why this particular act was singled out for mention in this way, suggesting that it may either mean that kindling fire is a lav and not the more serious sanction of karet (an unlikely conclusion, somehow); or else is intended to imply the legal principle of “division into [major categories of] labor.” But perhaps, more simply, it implies something else. On another, more basic level of meaning, fire is presented as an archetypal form of prohibited labor. Having such an abundance of uses—heat, cooking, illumination and, since the Industrial Revolution (notwithstanding the seeming anachronism), providing mechanical energy—it may be seen as symbolizing the human conquest of the material world, the very essence of the weekday, mundane spirit. It is interesting that many Sephardic Jews in Israel speak of “eish” as the most basic prohibition of Sabbath. This sometimes leads to such odd juxtapositions as a family of my acquaintance who think nothing of driving long distances on the Shabbat, but keep an electric kettle with water boiled before Shabbat so as not to ignite fire for their Friday night tea. On the other hand: both Ramban and Ibn Ezra suggest that this verse is brought to reinforce the prohibition of fire, because it is permitted on festival days: i.e., were the Torah not to mention it as specifically prohibited, one might think that it is permitted on Shabbat as well.

The ubiquity of the Shabbat in the Torah is reminiscent of such Hasidic books as the Sefat Emet, which ends virtually every individual homily with some sort of reference to the Shabbat. For him, it is both the culmination and pinnacle of a person’s Divine service, as well as the day when one reaps the spiritual harvest of the labor invested during the weekdays in the ”avodah” of Torah study and prayer during the weekday. (I once noted that the difference between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism is reflected in their prayer books: a Lithuanian Siddur, like the Gaon of Vilna’s Ishei Yisrael, is top heavy with commentaries on Shema, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; a Hasidic one, such as Otzar ha-Tefillot, is filled with commentaries on Shabbat.)

“And the People Brought More than Enough”: Gifts to the Temple & Shabbat Shekalim

Vayakhel is concerned with the bringing by the people of gifts to the Sanctuary. One of its central elements is the scene in which all the people brought their stuff to Moses and Bezalel for this purpose. We are told that all those who were moved to do so brought gifts to the Temple. The Torah describes what seems to have been a vast popular outpouring of giving: the men and the women, who ever had various kinds of jewelry… dyes… silver and bronze… skilled women who knew how to weave…, etc. (35:21-26). On the other hand, certain wealthy individuals —the princes—brought the jewels and other precious items needed for the sanctuary (v. 27). In the end, Moses was told by the artisans “the people have brought enough and more,” and Moses issued a call, “Enough; we do not need anymore.” (As Rabbi Mutti Elon wryly commented on this on television: “Who can imagine a Jewish institution today saying that they have enough?”)

Some years (as in 2005) this Shabbat coincides with Parshat Shekalim: the first of the four special Sabbaths, on each of which a special portion is read as maftir, which fall during the month or so preceding Nissan, the month of Passover. Parashat Shekalim (Exod 30:11-16) describes the collection from each member of the people of the half-shekel, which served as a kind of levy originally imposed for the construction of the Sanctuary; thereafter, it became a tax used to pay for the regular sacrificial offerings made in the Temple on behalf of the people as a whole. As an annual tax, whose year ran from Nissan to Nissan, the communal officials used to announce it publicly one month earlier, to remind people of this obligation. It thus bears no direct connection to holiday season, but was simply an annual obligation.

More than anything, this institution symbolizes equality of all before God, the participation of all in the sacrifices brought in the name of all Israel. “The wealthy one shall not bring more, nor the poor one less, than the half-shekel” (v. 15). A private individual was not allowed to buy the korban tamid; it had to be a concrete manifestation of the sacrifices belonging of the entire people.

There is an interesting tension here between the democratic principle, in which the Temple is meant to represent the entire people (Knesset Yisrael as an halakhic- metaphysical entity); and the reality of wealth, and that there are inevitably those who are able to make impressive, dazzling gifts. The Torah seems to accept this fact, while placing definite checks on it, to prevent the Temple service becoming a domain dominated by a handful of wealthy individuals. And there is no need to elaborate the echoes of such problems in our own time and place.

Sacred Architecture: Plan and Execution

I will conclude with two brief observations about the “doubling over” of these portions. As we mentioned earlier, Vayakhel & Pekudai (Chapters 36-40 of Exodus) are almost a mirror image of Terumah & Tetzaveh (Chs. 25-31:11). There are nevertheless certain significant differences between them.

First, and perhaps most striking, the order. Terumah begins by describing the most sacred objects in the sanctuary: the ark, the table for the shewbread, the menorah; it then goes on to the physical structure used to house them: the inner curtains of fabric, the outer covering of animal skin, and the wooden frame; turns from there to the outer altar of burnt-offerings; concludes with the posts and curtains used to mark off the “sacred space” of the outdoor courtyard of the Sanctuary; and at the very end, in what seems almost an afterthought, even after the priestly garments, the incense altar. In Vayakhel, the sequence is largely reversed: first the superstructure of the inner building; then the sacred objects, including the incense altar; then the outer altar; and, finally, the courtyard. The logic seems to be: the initial command is based upon the relative importance and sacredness of each item: the ark of the covenant comes first, as the raison d’etre of the whole (“I shall dwell among you”). But when it comes to practical execution, the ark and other sacred things cannot be made until they have a home.

Second, and to my mind more interesting: in at least two places Vayakhel alludes to the special role played by women in he construction of the Temple. First, in 35:25-26, it mentions that the women wove the various colored fabrics, and “those women whose hearts were moved with wisdom spun the goats’ hair.” Rashi, rather bizarrely, comments that they wove the goats’ wool while it was still on the animals’ backs—a unique feminine talent? Second, it adds one item not mentioned in the main part of the original scheme: the water laver and base made from the “mirrors of the ministering women” (38:8).

An interesting midrash states that these mirrors were used by the women in Egypt to arouse their husbands, who were exhausted by hard labor. The women would coquettishly look into these mirrors (which were simply highly polished brass, without silver or glass) together with their men, until the husbands would go to them, thereby assuring the continuation of another generation. The midrash goes on to say that Moses, rather priggishly, objects to using such objects in the Temple, having been used to cultivate in the service of “the Evil Urge,” but God countered that, on the contrary, they were especially precious to Him (Rashi, quoting Tanhuma). We find here the age-old image of the puritanical, male religious leader who feels that attachment to the sacred requires building high fences against the instinctive, lustful side of life, lest it be flooded by undisciplined, chaotic impulses. God, on the other hand, articulates a frank, natural acceptance of this aspect of life too.

Temple/Cosmos — Microcosm/ Macrocosm

This portion, the final one in the book of Shemot (Exodus), completes those chapters concerned with the building of the Sanctuary, with which we have been concerned over the past four or five weeks. Several interesting points: As we mentioned in our initial discussion on Parashat Terumah, this is the culmination of Exodus: the structure of the book of Exodus leads from exile and bondage in Egypt, through the Exodus, to the Revelation at Sinai, and beyond that, to the human response of building a Sanctuary, a home for the indwelling of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

That this is the necessary completion of the Sinai Revelation is suggested by the ubiquitous discussions in Hasidic texts of “itaruta diltata” and “itaruta dil’eila”: “arousal from Above” and “arousal from below,” and their constant interplay. The relationship between man and God is seen as a constant sort of lover’s duet: sometimes God makes the first move, performing redemptive or miraculous acts, or revealing Himself, hoping to arouse man’s response. At other times, there is an awakening from the human side, a yearning for God’s closeness, to which there is then a response. The mitzvot generally are seen as a vessel for human “awakening from below.” The great-grandpa of them all, surely, is the construction of the Sanctuary/Temple: God appears at Sinai, manifests himself with his Indwelling or Glory—and guides man to response through commanding the building of the Mishkan.

The final sections, Exodus 39:32 - 40, describe the completion of the Sanctuary and its erection on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the first day of the second year in the desert. This day is viewed as the greatest single day in the history of Israel, in this archetypal, almost mythical age of the desert. It continues as the “narrated present” through the Book of Leviticus and into the first part of Numbers, into and including the series of eight sections (parshiyot) that were given “on that very day” (including the priestly blessing), and the gifts of the princes (Numbers 7). But there is also an ironic, tragic denouement described in Parshat Shemini (Lev 9-10), whose antinomies of ecstatic, sacred joy and sudden death we shall get to in good time.

Several interesting turns of phrase appear here, suggesting a clear parallel between the Six days of the Creation and the erecting of the Sanctuary (I saw this idea in the late Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies). “Thus all the work of the tabernacle… was finished” (vetekhel kol avodat…; 39:32); “and Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it… and Moses blessed them” (vayar Moshe… vehinei asu otah... veyevarekh otam Moshe; v. 43). The parallel to “Vayekhulu” (Gen 1:31-2:3), in which God sees all that He has done, and that it is completed, and performs an act of blessing [in this case, the seventh day] is striking. One is left with the strong sense that the Temple is a Microcosm of the Universe itself. (It would be interesting to see if there are any Kabbalistic speculations that draw a correspondence between the seven days of Creation and the seven sefirot or “building blocks,” and the artifacts of the Temple. The triad of Ark, Menorah and Shewbread Table is suggestive…)

Another theme clearly suggested by the wording of the chapter is the parallel between the manifestation of the Divine Glory at Mount Sinai and its indwelling in the Sanctuary —a point we have already mentioned (compare Exod 24:15-18 to 40:34-38). But this is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, there is something wonderful about the Divine making itself immanent to ordinary human beings in an ongoing kind of way (one might almost say: something very “Hasidic” in it, vis-a-vis the sanctification of the mundane); on the other hand, there are more than a few problems in “bringing down” the divine presence from the rarified mountain heights of Sinai to constant presence in an institution, a building overseen by a hereditary priesthood (even if not plagued by the problems of corruption, arrogance, self-aggrandizement, etc., that almost inevitably accompany such situations, from 1 Sam 2:12-17 to any morning’s newspaper)—and the problem is a well-known, perennial one (also viz. prophet and priest).

“As a hart longs for flowing streams, so does my soul long for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1)

In our comments on Parshat Terumah we spoke of the Temple, and by analogy of prayer. Each person is obligated to ”build a Temple” in his own heart; the Temple of prayer. (It is interesting that some Kabbalistic siddurim speak of prayer as an inner journey within the Temple: moving from the outer courtyards, to the inner courtyard, to the Sanctuary, and from there to the Holy of Holies. Alternatively, it is described as a journey of ascent among the four Kabbalistic ”worlds”—but that is another story.) As the Torah deals here with the actual, practical construction of the Sanctuary, or Temple, so we will continue our discussion of prayer with some more practical aspects.

But first, I would like to add one more element to our theoretical discussion. Rav Soloveitchik, using the Brisker method of conceptual analysis, in which one arrives at an understanding of the Talmudic or other halakhic texts dialectically, by making use of sharply-honed distinctions, often spoke of the distinction vis-a-vis certain mitzvot between the “act of performance of mitzvah” (ma’aseh mitzvah), which is by its nature external, technical (for example: prayer as the recitation of a certain text, within certain time parameters, numerous technical laws governing its recitation and/or required bodily posture and state, etc.); and its “fulfillment within the heart“ (kiyyum shebalev). He spoke of this in reference to such mitzvot as rejoicing in the festivals, shofar, observance of mourning for the dead, and Keriat Shema (the recitation of Shema); but most of all, in terms of Teshuvah and Tefillah.

In retrospect, I see this as a very significant spiritualist move on his part: his aim was to make his modern Orthodox “flock” (which of course spanned the entire United States and more, and included rabbis as well as laymen) aware of the often neglected importance of the spiritual side, and anchoring it within the very heart of the halakhah. That this subject was close to his heart is illustrated by the way in which he more than once expressed his disappointment with Modern Orthodoxy, in the words: “They serve God with their minds and with their hands, but not with their hearts!”

Having said that as prelude, the question to be asked is: What is the inner counterpart to the external act of prayer, both in general, and specifically of “Tefillah,” i.e., the Amidah or Shemonah Esreh? More succinctly, what is the inner essence of prayer? I would say: standing before God—amidah lifnei HaShem—or, in terms of a concrete, do-able mitzvah imperative: placing oneself mentally in that situation. All kavvanah—focusing or concentration or mental guiding of oneself in prayer—is ultimately aimed at bringing the person to that state which might be called “being in the presence of God”; and from there, addressing Him from our own situation as human beings. This state eludes definition or even description, but once experienced a person surely recognizes it.

To avoid misunderstanding: I am not speaking here of some esoteric mystical state of Giluy Shekhinah, of personal revelation; our tradition sees these as rare gifts, with which only a few, highly developed individuals are blessed. I speak, rather, of the “opening of the doors” to a realized consciousness of that which surrounds us at all times—a simple, basic, ground awareness of the immanent presence of God in the world.

How does one arrive at that place?

First of all, community helps. There is a new spirit abroad in the land: a spirit of seeking spirituality, of seeking to breathe new meaning, new life and vitality into the old prayer rites. Living in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood over the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity to participate on a regular basis in two highly spiritually conscious minyanim (Yakar and the once-a-month ”Leader minyan”), which make a conscious attempt to infuse prayer with meaning. In both these places there is a style of prayer which attempts to avoid the sliding into routine, the hasty, mechanical type of davening seen in so many shuls. And of course there are many other such minyanim throughout the Jewish world—including the plethora of “Shlomo minyanim” which have cropped up almost everywhere since the death of Rav Shlomo Carlebach. These new groups are infusing a breath of fresh air into the Jewish world. They seem to present an alternative, a kind of “third way,” offering an alternative to both the ordinary neighborhood synagogues, which may at their best be locii of fellowship, of learning, of acts of hesed (kindness), but which tend to have a dry, hurried type of prayer; as well as to the yeshiva and Hasidic synagogues and communities, in which one may find intensity of prayer, but which tend to be too sectarian, ingrown, and exclusivist for many.

Nevertheless, it is important to know two things. First, that even the worst minyan is in some sense a mystical embodiment of Knesset Yisrael, of the Jewish covenantal community. Indeed, there are times when I feel that davening specifically with a shallow, superficial minyan filled with unsavory types can be the most profund exercise in love of ones fellow Jew and ones fellow man. Second, that on the other hand even the best minyan cannot substitute for the inner work, the focusing of consciousness, ultimately a highly individual enterprise, that is the very heart and soul of prayer.

What have I learned about kavvanah in prayer? First, two related ideas: the bakasha aspect, that of petitional prayer, is important for seeing ones dependence on God, expressing awareness of the conditional, even ephemeral, non-self-sufficient existential situation of man. Second, and closely related to this, is the need when praying to abandon self-centeredness, the over-arching, over-bearing “modern ego.” Sometimes I walk into a synagogue, even one with a “spiritual” atmosphere, and see all the “young man on the run”—ambitious young lawyers and physicians and academics and businessmen, who fill both the Orthodox and general Jewish community—and feel in the set of their faces the great gap between their weekday social roles and consciousness, and what the tradition, the Siddur text and the halakhah, demand of them. (This problem is of course a particularly strong one for men; I believe that this is what people really mean when they say that women are “more spiritual” and less in need of the constant round of mitzvot: that, whether by nature or education, they tend to be less aggressive and ego-centered)

What else have I learned? Perhaps most of all, that davening must be taken unhurriedly. For me, reciting the introductory hymns of the Pesukei de-Zimra at the Leader Minyan, so often raced through in conventional synagogues, was a revelation: singing or chanting each psalm as a world unto itself, using slow, meditative melodies (from Carlebach or from the minor-key, chant-like maqam of Eastern Jewry), in a way that seemed to elevate the soul to unexpected heights. Suddenly, Ashrei (Psalm 145), a text that I have reacted three times daily as long as I can remember, took on new meaning, as a hymn of faith and trust and praise of God, through the simple expedient of finding myself taking each verse slowly, by itself, without rushing. The same holds true, only even more so, of the Shema and the Amidah, which are the very heart of the order of prayer. Even when davening in a conventional synagogue, where the pace is breakneck, it’s important to remind oneself that saying all the words simply to finish them not really the point, and try to slow down, at least for these central portions.

There are many other issues that could be raised. Some people have suggested that contemporary people do not have the patience for the lengthy, “long-winded,” and repetitious Orthodox liturgy, and that were the text to be cut in half synagogues would enjoy a renewal of vitality. But the experience of various reformist movements (i.e., changing prayer texts, shortening service etc.), who have done precisely that, on the one hnad; and the enthusiasm generated by a slow, meditative group such as the Leader Minyan, which takes the better part of six hours for an ordinary Shabbat morning service, on the other, suggests otherwise. Then there are those for whom certain passages or themes in the traditional liturgy raise ideological problems. My own predilection is more traditional, and where there are such problems I prefer reinterpretation or allegorization to deleting time-honored texts—but volumes can, and have, been written on these issues. Still others have serious personal problems relating to basic faith issues. I certainly respect these difficulties, and they deserve a longer discussion than is possible here. Hopefully I will do so on some later occasion—perhaps Parshat Va’etanan or Ekev, in relation to the reading of Shema.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts. My soul longs, is faint, for the courtyards of the Lord. My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself….” (Psalm 84:2-4) One thing have I asked of the Lord, that alone I seek; That I may dwell in the house of the Loed all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, And to inquire in his temple. (Ps 62:1, 5)

“For honor and glory”

I will conclude with another brief insight about a little-noted correlation between the Temple and the Shabbat. Some weeks ago, on Parshat Tetazveh, I was puzzled by one of the verses used to describe the purpose of the special priestly vestments: “And you [Moses] shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for honor and glory” (li-khavod ule-tiferet; Exod 28:20). I then noted that the same phrase is used in a certain place in the liturgy: in the last of the four blessings recited after the reading of the Haftarah on Shabbat and festival days, these days are described as having been given li-khavod ule-tiferet. In the case of Shabbat, this phrase is preceded by the words, “for holiness and for rest” (li-kedushah vele-menuha); on festivals the phrase added is “for joy and gladness” (li-sasson ule-simhah). In both cases “honor and glory“ serves as a kind of common denominator.

The word tiferet belongs to the semantic field having to do with beauty: searching its biblical usages in a concordance, I found it used in conjunction with such terms as ateret, zvi, tehillah, etc., but only once, in the above-mentioned verse about the priestly garments. is it paired with the word kavod. The noun pe’er, taken from that root, refers to the crown worn by bridegrooms in ancient times. The connotation is thus one of beauty, of glory, of a halo, a certain visual radiance that attracts people aesthetically. Kavod, usually translated as “honor,” comes from a root meaning weighty, possessing a certain gravity, solemnity, dignity. When Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the demeanor of halakhic man in his essay of that title, he emphasizes his gravity and solemnity; he is calm, centered, not given to extremes of either ecstasy or melancholy. Then, too, kavod refers to the earthly manifestation or reflection of the Divine Presence: “and God’s kavod filled the Sanctuary” (end of Pekudei: Exod 40:34)

Thus, kavod & tiferet suggest a certain unique combination of these two qualities: aesthetic beauty, which appeals to the human senses, and by itself may be fleeting and external, combined with the gravity, seriousness, and truth of those things that are of eternal value. Matthew Arnold divided Western culture into Hellenism and Hebraism, seeing the “sweetness and light” of the aesthetic in the Hellenic sensibility alone. Our tradition suggests that both may dwell together, in the holy days and in the Temple.

“You shall not burn any fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath day”

This week (in 2002?) my grocer commented to me that “the Likud blew it.” By this, he meant that, as a result of the coalition agreement with Shinui (the secular, virulently anti-religious and anti-clerical “party of the secularists and the middle class,” who were the surprise spoilers of this past Jan 28 election), many of Likud’s traditional supporters among the working class and lower-middle class Sephardim feel angry and betrayed. In other words, notwithstanding that many of these Oriental Jews are not “Orthodox” in the usual sense of the word, they are fiercely attached to Jewish tradition and religious symbols as they understand it—a factor grossly underestimated by Sharon.

This casual remark set me to reflections about the “traditionalist” Jews in Israel. It’s easy for those accustomed to “full” observance to look askance at the “hypocrisy” and “inconsistency” of those whose Friday night consists of Kiddush and television, or whose Sabbath day involves going to the synagogue and to the soccer match. Another example of this type of Judaism involved my brother’s next door neighbors, who drove long distances on Shabbat, but left an electric urn going in their kitchen because “they don’t use fire on Shabbat.” To an ordinary Orthodox Jew such as myself, this behavior seemed ridden with anomaly, if not bizarre. And yet, beyond this “inconsistency,” one finds a great reverence for Torah and tradition: attachment to the synagogue and the celebration of the festivals; respect for hakhamim and rabbis, at times with an admixture of superstition and belief in the magical powers of Kabbalists, whose down side is a susceptibility to charlatans. Often, also, unlike Ashkenaziot, their women will observe taharat hamishpaha even if they are not particular about Shabbat observance.

Thinking further, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps these Sephardic traditionalists are simply observing Shabbat as their great-grandfathers did: just as their ancestors did not refrain from using automobiles, electricity, and telephones on Shabbat (because they hadn’t yet been invented!), so do they! In their own eyes, what they are doing is not a violation of Shabbat; they are “hyper-traditionalists,” whose Judaism is based entirely on inherited family traditions rather than upon the halakhic mentality of formal book learning, reflecting on new questions, and asking rabbis. They simply don’t bother to think about the innumerable things invented in the past hundred-odd years in terms of Shabbat. In a word, they have not “bought into” the consensus of modern pesak that prohibits the use of electrical appliances, telephones, automobiles, computers, cell phones, etc., on Shabbat—but they adhere devoutly to the definition of esh (“fire”) known to the nineteenth century world, or maybe even to their forebears in the mid-20th century, just before the Great Aliyah.

Of course, this type of halakhic conservatism—simply not bothering to apply halakhic rules to modern inventions, of treating them “lekula” (leniently) by default—is incorrect, and possibly disingenuous. Not only does it go against the clear consensus of rulings of the leading Rabbinic authorities of our age, but it implies in principle a stagnant approach to halakhah, which prefers to ignore the new. (I will leave aside the religious-theological & communal issues of emunat hakhamim, a word I don‘t like much, and even more so the actual technical halakhic issues involved in the status of electricity, micro-electronics, etc., which requires knowledge of both physics and pesikah way beyond my competence, and merely say that I trust those who have dealt with these issues.) More important to me is that a Shabbat in which one uses all these things fails to create the island or “sanctuary in time” of which Heschel spoke, in which one withdraws from the noise and din of modern life. Nevertheless, it is important to engage in limmud zekhut—“finding merit”—for this population, imbued with a type of naive, if not overly rigorous or demanding, piety. They accept Shabbat as a traditional code, passed down by mimesis rather than by strict logical learning and inference.

All of which is by way of introduction to the reading, in this week’s portion, of the verse prohibiting fire in Shabbat, on which I would like to share the following thoughts. Our parsha, although it deals mostly with the Mishkan, begins with three verse on the Shabbat. “And Moses gathered together the entire community of Israel…. Six days shall labor be done, and the seventh day shall be holy, a holy Shabbat to the Lord…. You shall kindle no fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath day” [Exodus 35:1-3].

I cannot go into all the nuances of these few verse: how the Rabbis derive the 39 prohibited categories of labor from the words aleh hadevarim in the first verse; the Hasidic peshat that comments on the use of the passive voice in v. 2 (tai’aseh melakhah—“labor shall be done”), as pointing towards an ideal in which one’s weekday labors are done “by the way,” almost as an aside, a Jew’s real concern in life being the study of Torah and worship of the Divine; etc. What most exercises the Rabbis here is the seeming superfluity of the verse “you shall burn no fire,” after we have already been told that one should do not work on the Shabbat day. Is not kindling fire just one more form of labor? What does this verse add?

The Talmud, at Shabbat 70a, gives two answers to this question. R. Nathan says that the phrase “you shall not kindle fire“ is added lehaleik (“to divide”): that is, to—indicate that the division of prohibited Shabbat labor into different categories has major juridical significance: namely, that a person is held accountable for each separate labor he performs. Fire is mentioned separately merely as an example of this rule, as an archetypal representative of all the melakhot. R. Yossi, by contrast, says: le-lav yatza; that is, to indicate that kindling fire is an ordinary proscription of the Torah (lav), which is somehow less weighty or serious than the other categories of Shabbat labor, for which the death penalty or karet (“excision from the people”) is prescribed.

Intuitively, I am not satisfied by either answer. They are certainly valid as far as they go, within the rubric of traditional halakhic midrashic exegesis, but I cannot escape the feeling that there is some more basic, straightforward reason for its being mentioned here. This is strengthened by the feelings of the traditionalist Jews I mentioned earlier, for whom refraining from the use of fire is somehow a central act, emblematic of the Shabbat as a whole. Or note the familiar fact that fire plays a central role in the Shabbat ritual, the lighting of candles being used to signal both its beginning and end; or the fact that the ban on fire is one of the rules that distinguishes Shabbat from festival days, when fire may be used (albeit with certain limitations). Or that the use of fire lit before Shabbat was a central issue in the controversy of Rabbinic Judaism with the Karaites (indeed, Ibn Ezra’s “long commentary” on this verse relates to that polemic).

One may extend this analysis by noting another category of Shabbat labor specifically mentioned in the Torah (albeit midrashically): hotza’ah, carrying objects from one “domain” or type of space to another. The chapter about the manna that fell in the desert, with the concomitant proscription against gathering it on Shabbat, states, “Let no man go out of his place on the Shabbat day” (Exodus 16:29). This is interpreted by the Sages both as defining a certain “Sabbath limit,” beyond which a person is not allowed to walk on Shabbat, and as prohibiting carrying objects about (al yeitzei—al yotzi). Hotz’aah is conceived as one of the most basic, central melakhot. Interestingly, in terms of the amount of space devoted to them in the Talmud and the Codes, the three categories of kindling, carrying, and cooking, occupy an inordinate amount of space: perhaps more than half of the Talmudic tractate Shabbat (even more if one includes Eruvin). All three are likewise proscribed on Shabbat alone, and are among the labors permitted on festival days.

This issue becomes more interesting if we attempt to define conceptually the nature of these labors. The other Shabbat labors involve changing some material object in a way that improves or perfects it for use, an almost quintessential act of civilization: preparing the soil to grow things; harvesting fruit or produce; converting fibers into cloth; turning raw food into cooked; etc. In the act of hav’arah (kindling fire), by contrast, one destroys material (i.e., fuel: wood, oil, gas) to obtain an intangible benefit, such as heat, light, cooking power, or mechanical energy to run machinery. Similarly, hotza’ah, removing and carrying objects from place to place, involves no change in the nature of the object involved, but simply the extension of its use, by making it available in different places.

What do all these facts suggest about the nature of Shabbat? I have no systematic answer, but present these questions and reflections as a basis for further thought, with the feeling that they may help unlock the secret of the Shabbat. But see the next section for further reflections.

Shabbat and Weekday: Stasis and Dynamism

To continue the subject of Shabbat: Rashi on Genesis 2:2 states: “’And God completed on the seventh day the labor that He had done.’ What was the world lacking? It was lacking rest. When Shabbat came, rest came with it. The labor was finished and completed.”

This is a puzzling comment. Rashi raises an exegetical question: How can we speak of God as completing His labor on the seventh day, when we have just been told, at least seemingly, that He completed everything by the end of the sixth day? The answer: He created rest. But he is almost begging the question: What does it mean to create “rest,” which is an intangible entity rather than a concrete element of the corporeal world like the things mentioned earlier?

But in fact Judaism does conceive Shabbat, which is a unit of time, as a “real,” concrete entity. Moreover, various other abstract entities—or at least those that Western thought would classify as abstractions—such as the Torah, Teshuvah, and Yom Kippur, are likewise thought of as tangible entities. This goes against the grain of Western thought, suggesting that perhaps we need to rethink our ideas as to what is “real” or “unreal.” What, then, is the nature of the “rest” created by God on the seventh day? I would suggest the following interpretation:

A central debate in philosophy concerns the issue as to whether the world is essentially dynamic or static. Much of ancient Greek philosophy, and after it medieval philosophy, saw the world as essentially static; as arranged once and for all in an eternal, tranquil order. Of course motion exists, and living beings are born and die, but these are in some sense not “real”; they are pale, imperfect reflections of the “ideal” archetype or model of their species, which are reflective of eternal truth, partaking of the pure, perfect forms of pure Intellect. This idea is reflected, too, in the concept of the ideal Golden Age, in which all human needs are fulfilled.

An alternative view sees the world as dynamic, as in constant motion, constantly becoming, changing, altering its shape. This view is clearly the dominant one in the modern world. For modern physics the universe itself is constantly expanding; atoms and subatomic particles are constantly interacting and colliding; species themselves are not fixed, permanent entities, but constantly evolve, mutate, and change. Indeed, one of the challenges confronting those who wish to harmonize the scientific account of the development of universe with the text of the Torah, is not only how to deal with the Six Days of Creation (the standard answer, a symbolic interpretation in which “days” become aeons of time, seems to provide a coherent answer, one already found in the midrash), nor even with the issue of evolution (the concept of evolution betraying signs of a “guiding hand” at crucial junctures is one possible answer). A more basic question is: what was the Sabbath of Creation? If the story of the universe itself is one of constant dynamism, of perpetual change and evolution, what “stopping point” is there in this process (“And God ceased on the seventh day…”)? At what point can one say that there was a sense of closure, of completion, in Creation itself?

Which of these views represents that of “Judaism”? A case can be made for both views. In Chapters 2-4 of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, where Maimonides presents his own understanding of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the esoteric teaching of the Divine Throne and the Creation, he paints a stately, static picture of the universe, composed of a series of fixed, concentric celestial spheres, majestically rotating in their respective places. In the Kabbalah, by contrast, one finds a dynamic picture, in which the Sefirotic tree or “Primal Adam” functions like a flow-chart of Divine energies carrying the Divine blessing down, stage by stage, from the highest worlds to the lowest. This, not to mention the drama of the primordial “breaking of the vessels” and the need for tikkun affected by man’s work in the mitzvot. Or, as Art Green has noted, the image of the Divine name itself as vowels sounds, “dancing” about in a state of constant dynamic motion.

Interestingly, the Torah itself may also be understood in both dynamic and static ways. Prof. Yochanan Silman of Bar-Ilan University has written a number of articles and books in which he develops a philosophy of halakhah based on viewing halakhic discussions through these alternate perspectives. The very title of his major book, Kol gadol velo yasaf, reflects this ambiguity. The title alludes to the verse (Deut 5:19) describing the “great voice” heard at Sinai which, in one reading, was “never repeated” and, in the other, “never ceased.” He thus speaks of the Torah of Israel as being either “Perfection” in itself, or as “Being-Ever-Perfected,” through the ongoing process of human creativity of the Oral Torah. He writes:

The tension in question reflects the universal dichotomy between the “classical” ideal (“Ethos”), in which greatest value is attributed to that which is actual, as against the “romantic” ideal (“Pathos”), in which the highest value is that of the process of creativity… That approach which sees the Torah as a static perfection would give precedence to the sages of earlier generations, while that which sees it as in a state of constantly being perfected would prefer the teaching of the more recent generations.

In this light we may return to the question of the Shabbat. The Shabbat—or, more properly, the tension or interplay in Judaism between Shabbat and weekday—may be read as a metaphor for the idea that the universe is simultaneously dynamic, unfolding, changing, renewing itself, and at the same time perfect and complete unto itself. Somehow, in a way we cannot comprehend, both of these contradictory positions are true.

The institution of the Shabbat, as a recurrent unit of time observed every seven days, is in a sense a translation into our human understanding, into temporal conceptions, of this cosmic truth. Perhaps, on a deeper level, the tension between Shabbat and weekday may be seen as existing within the Godhead at all times. After all, does not God, who “tells the end from the beginning,” exist beyond “the arrow of time,” in a trans-temporal realm that our minds cannot even conceive? Perhaps it is to this that the Kabbalah alludes when it equates the “Seven Days of Creation” (or “Seven days of Construction”; shivat yemei habinyan) with the seven Sefirot, representing the dynamic path by which Divine energy flows into our world. In this model, Shabbat, which corresponds to Malkhut, the vessel of receiving, of inaction, of passivity (which is in turn the source of contemplation, which I hope to discuss in HY IV: Vayikra), represents the static perfection of the universe. It was this state of “rest,” which the world lacked, that was created on, or through, or perhaps within, the seventh day.


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