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Shabbat and Holiness

This week’s parashah is the first in the Torah, Bereyshit. We are all familiar with the story of the creation that we read in these chapters of the Torah. However, the narrative still raised many questions for our rabbis and scholars. One of the many issues debated by the rabbis is the timing of humanity’s creation in relationship to Shabbat. Rashi (12th century France) believed that God created Adam right before Shabbat so that he could immediately enter the holy and peaceful realm of Shabbat. And yet we also read in the same source that God created Adam a few hours before Shabbat so that he could first participate in the everyday activities of the world and thereby be better able to appreciate the peace of Shabbat.
This contradiction raises a question: psychologically and spiritually speaking, is Shabbat a starting place from which to enter the week? Or is it a respite and refuge from the week that has already passed?

A great Hassidic rabbi, Shmuel of Sochochow, connects this question to a Talmudic debate as to what one does if one is lost in the desert and has no idea what day it is. If you have completely lost track of time,when should you observe Shabbat? The ancient rabbinic Beit Shammai (house of Shammai, one of the early sages) states that the person should observe Shabbat immediately and then count off six days and observe Shabbat again. The other dominant house, Beit Hillel, states that the person should first count six days and then observe Shabbat.

Beit Shammai’s decision is based on a belief that human beings need Shabbat to give them an added degree of holiness before they can enter the “regular” week, and that through Shabbat they somehow bring holiness and God into the ordinary days. Beit Hillel, who tends to emphasizing God’s attribute of mercy (hesed), believed that in order to connect with the sacred and the divine in our world we must first do the “ordinary” work of our everyday lives, and try our best to pursue sanctity at the same time. If we do this then we are rewarded with the ultimate sanctity and holiness of Shabbat as an act of divine care. This notion of Shabbat as a reward for our striving toward holiness in our everyday lives, explains why (in Hillel’s view) Adam was created a few hours before Shabbat, as well as why, if one has no idea what day it is, one works for six days and then observes Shabbat.

These commentaries remind us that in order to connect with the Divine in the world and in our lives (as symbolized by Shabbat) we also need to connect with the “ordinary” aspects of our lives (represented by the six days of the week). It is our work in the world, with the people in our lives, that enable us to find God. Only then can we truly be rewarded with the experience of the holiness and peace that is represented by Shabbat.

We must try our best to experience the holiness that can be found within the ordinary so that we can then truly experience the holiness and sanctity in the day that is “all holiness.”

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