Shabbos and the Jewish Identity

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Prior to presenting a halachic matter in his Mishneh Torah, Rambam always lists the relevant Torah-based commandments and prohibitions. With all the complexities that abound in the area of Hilchos Shabbos, the Rambam identifies only five total commandments, three of them prohibitions. One of these is the general prohibition of performing melocho, another involving walking outside a set boundary on Shabbos. The third one, though, is less common, but of extreme importance – the prohibition of Beis Din to mete out punishments on Shabbos, expressed primarily through the different types of executions. 

The source for this prohibition is found in Parshas VaYakhel, when Moshe explains to Bnai Yisrael:

“You must not kindle a fire in all your dwelling places on the day of Shabbos.” 

Of course, at first glance, it is hard to see how this verse has any relevance whatsoever to Beis Din and executions. The Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, based on Sanhedrin 35a,  Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 4:6 and Mechilta Shemos 35:3) elaborates on how this prohibition was derived from the verse. He explains that the issur of starting a fire really refers to the punishment of sereifa (a method of execution involving fire), which is then applied to the other methods of execution enacted by Beis Din. Since the Torah previously introduced the overall prohibition of melocho, which would include lighting a fire, the assumption is that the Torah is introducing a unique halacha. Finally, the phrase “in all your dwelling places” is used elsewhere in the Torah, where it refers to Beis Din – therefore, the same can be applied here. As a result of this prohibition, the entire judgment process is pushed off to the following week.

This helps explain the deduction from verse to practical halacha. But it still leaves an important question, namely, what is the necessity of this prohibition? What is the problem of carrying out these punishments?

In the Sefer Ha Chinuch (114), we find what appears to be an obscure explanation for this commandment:

“At the root of the precept lies the reason that the Eternal Lord wished to honor this day, that all should find rest in it, even the sinners and the guilty. To give a parable: A great king summoned the people of the country one day to a feast, when he would not withhold entry from any man, and after the day of the feast he would sit in judgment. So is this matter: the Eternal Lord commanded us to hallow and honor the Sabbath day for our good, and to make us meritorious, as I have written above (32), This too is for the honor of the day.”

This passage raises numerous questions.  Why should “the sinners and the guilty” be entitled to enjoy Shabbos? We are not talking about small crimes here – these are people who have committed capital offenses, ranging from murder to idol worship. Astonishingly, according to this reasoning, a person who violates Shabbos in front of an audience (befarhesia), which clearly indicates a complete refutation of Shabbos, would be granted this same reprieve, able to avoid the sentence of death for one more day. What type of idea is this? Another issue has to do with the reference to the rest, or menucha, experienced on Shabbos. Assuming that somehow this is a grace period for the soon-to-be-executed, will he truly “find rest” this Shabbos? It seems more likely he will spend Shabbos contemplating his imminent death. 

The concept of rest, or menucha, has a central role in the day of Shabbos. It is often assumed that menucha refers to physical rest, best personified by the overall increase in Shabbos afternoon naps experienced in Jewish communities worldwide. I am certainly not here to speak out against those. Yet, in the tefilas minchah on Shabbos, we make reference to menucha in a much different context. We speak of a “rest of love and magnanimity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and serenity and security and tranquility,” concluding with the proposition that “through their [Bnai Yisrael’s] rest, they will come to sanctify Your Name.” It is with the utmost confidence that we can assume this is not referring to extra sleep. What, then, is this concept of menucha? 

The idea of Shabbos is very much based on creating a certain type of mindset, best expressed in the transition from chol to kodesh, mundane to sanctified. In essence, our pursuits tied to the physical world abruptly stop, and our entire existences turn now towards the study of God as our Creator. To have a day when all of our thoughts and energies are to be directed towards God is a unique experience, a state of mind that cannot be achieved during our workday lives. This is the menucha of “truth,” “magnanimity,” and the other characteristics mentioned in the tefilah. It is the state where man is truly in line with his intended purpose in this world, the involvement in the study of God – and the stage is set for this on the day of Shabbos. When the Jew is able to internalize these concepts, he comes to sanctify the name of God. 

The idea of menucha, then, refers to the state of mind one is able to achieve on this day. While this helps establish the intended thought process on Shabbos, we have to dig deeper to see how important Shabbos is before tackling the problem raised in the Sefer HaChinuch. At the end of Hilchos Shabbos (30:15), Rambam writes that Shabbos and idolatry are the two commandments that are equivalent to all the commandments listed in the Torah. Shabbos, is the permanent “os,” or sign between God and Bnai Yisrael. Whereas a person who violates a commandment is considered a rasha, a person who violates Shabbos in the public venue is like someone who committed idolatry. The end result is that the person is essentially considered no different than a non-Jew. 

The clear message from the Rambam is the distinct importance of Shabbos within the pantheon of Torah commandments. Why the comparison to idolatry? And what about the comparison between the severity of Shabbos/idolatry versus the other “lesser” commandments?  We usually perceive our identity as a Jew through our relationship to the system of halacha. It is our adherence to the commandments given at Sinai that serves as the yardstick of our distinctiveness. Yet there is a more fundamental identity that exists, one that, without which, renders in a sense our halachic responsibilities irrelevant. The acceptance of God is what gives us our philosophical identity, ultimately separating us from all other religions. Idolatry results in the destruction of this identity, and with it, the true meaning of being a Jew. The flip side of the coin is the adherence to Shabbos. On the seventh day of the week, we must remove ourselves from our normal pursuits, a life dictated by the offerings of the physical world, and turn to the world of chachmas Hashem. Idolatry is the denial of God, while adherence to Shabbos is the greatest acknowledgment of the reality of God’s existence. This could be the reason why the Rambam ties these two together, and why they are so significant.

So far, we’ve established that the idea of menucha alludes to the state of mind achieved on the day of Shabbos. The Rambam goes further, explaining why this state of mind is one of the foundations of our very philosophical identity as a Jew. How does this all fit into the Sefer HaChinuch’s explanation? 

The scenario with the king and the feast serves to demonstrate that regardless of the status of the citizen, all his subjects were treated equally—they were all invited. The intended purpose of this analogy is to show, of course, that there is no distinction between the sinner and non-sinner when it comes to the day of Shabbbos. Why not? Furthermore, how does the role of Beis Din fit into all of this?

Beis Din exists within the halachic system, a product of that very system, and its primary function is to ensure that Bnai Yisrael abide by this system. While their powers are sweeping, the Torah is presenting a fundamental limitation in their actions. They have no right to prevent a person from experiencing the menucha found in the day of Shabbos. It is not that the person necessarily will abide by the dictates of Shabbos, but it is part of the philosophical DNA of the Jew to have the opportunity every seventh day to participate in the experience. In a sense, the halachic world personified by Beis Din is being delineated from the more central idea that defines the Jew. The Rambam’s separation of Shabbos and idolatry from the rest of the halachic system reinforces this point. To carry out the execution on Shabbos would not just prevent this individual from this opportunity of Shabbos. It would be demonstrative of the superiority of the system of halacha over this fundamental that comes to define us as Jews.