Shabbat and the Festivities of the Mind

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, VaYakheil, continues the epic story of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The entire nation was gathered to listen to Moshe’s exhortation to offer the contributions and to perform the skillful artistic sculpting that the project required. Fortunate is the artist whose talents are needed and which bring great spiritual benefit to an entire nation.

Moshe prefaced his instructions pertaining to the Tabernacle with a call to keep the Sabbath. He said, “On six days work shall be done, but the seventh day shall be holy to you, a day of complete rest for Hashem; whoever does work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Shemot 35:2-3).

At first glance, it is not clear what the keeping of Shabbat has to do with the building of the Mishkan. A number of commentators have addressed this issue and have provided interesting explanations for this juxtaposition. Some have suggested that its purpose is to emphasize the point that as important as the construction of this holy site is, it does not supersede the Shabbat. Thus, when the Sabbath draws near, all work on the Mishkan must cease. Even the holiest implements to be utilized in the Temple Service cannot be worked on during the seventh day.

This contains an important teaching for one might have thought that only labor directed at mundane objectives must cease, so man can focus on his spiritual necessities but activities that are intended to establish the “resting place” for the Divine Presence would be an appropriate undertaking on the holy day. However, the Torah teaches us otherwise. Refraining from any labor, even the construction of the Mishkan, is of greater value than building even the most sacred edifice. What is the reason for that?

To utilize one’s talents in the building of things that have supreme moral significance is a great accomplishment. In this endeavor, one must employ wisdom, skill, and the ability to adhere to precise measurements and designs. To work together harmoniously with other engineers and craftsmen of all kinds in producing a complex structure for a very important purpose is an uplifting experience that can elevate a person to a higher level.

So why would it be problematic for a person to engage in that type of activity on the Sabbath? I would like to offer a suggestion. On Shabbat, a person must refrain from any creative activity, even the preparation of foods for the sake of enjoying the day’s special meals.

[It should be noted that it is a Mitzvah to celebrate Shabbat with three celebratory meals. They can be prepared as long as no cooking or baking is involved. Thus, one can arrange the prepared foods on plates in the manner desired, but the actual “work” of producing them cannot be performed on the holy day.]

There is only one type of human creativity that is permitted and even encouraged on Shabbat, and that is the intellectual variety. The purpose of Shabbat is not to refrain from all activity and simply do nothing. The withdrawal from the realm of physical activity is in order to free the mind of the person for the study of the Torah. The commandment to “rest” does not mean to cease functioning but, rather, to enjoy the delights of the soul. The day is actually dedicated to the “festivities of the mind.” Many activities are proscribed on the seventh day because they constitute what is regarded as “nullification of the Beit Midrash (House of Study)”.

The Rambam describes the proper observance of Shabbat this way; “The custom of the early Tzadikim (righteous ones) was to pray on Shabbat morning Shacharit (morning) and Mussaf (additional prayer said on Shabbat and Yom Tov) in the Synagogue, then go home to eat the second meal, and afterward to go to the House of Study to engage in learning until the time for Mincha (afternoon prayer). After that, he would establish the third meal over wine and eat and drink until the conclusion of the Shabbat” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 30:10).

The proper observance of Shabbat requires that one engages in pleasurable activities such as eating fine foods and drinking special beverages. However, the requirement to experience joy on this special day includes, but is not limited to, carnal indulgences. The Talmudic sage Rebbie Berachia says that Shabbat was only given to engage in Torah study (Yerushalmi Shabbat 15:3:2). Man is a unique being made not only with physical and instinctual needs but intellectual and spiritual ones as well. The “rest” we are supposed to experience on the seventh day is a unique, joy-based one–experiencing the wonders of Hashem’s creation and His Revelation.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik goes so far as to assert that completely neglecting Torah study on the Sabbath is akin to Sabbath desecration. Therefore, it seems to me that the act of building the holy Mishkan, as important as it is, cannot override the great Mitzvah of observing the Shabbat. The effect that a genuine Shabbat encounter, in which one experiences joy in perceiving the wisdom of Torah, is greater than any other spiritual activity in terms of bringing a person closer to Hashem. May we be inspired to seek to observe the Sabbath on a higher level, appreciate its beauty and enjoy its delights.

Shabbat Shalom.