Just One Shabbos?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

“Just one Shabbos and we’ll all be free!”

-Mordechai ben David

We all know this famous lyric (don’t deny it), but does it really have any meaning? In this week’s parsha, we actually come face to face with the phenomenon of “just one Shabbos”. The incident of the individual who violated Shabbos opens an interesting opportunity for analysis of the importance of, yes, “just one Shabbos”. As we will see, Rashi offers a very difficult explanation, and the Talmud goes further in emphasizing how one Shabbos could have made all the difference. Ultimately, we will see the importance of Shabbos for the nation as a whole. 

The Torah introduces the violation of Shabbos in a vague manner (Bamidbar 15:32):

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks upon the sabbath day.”

Rashi notes the odd mention of the obvious fact that the Jewish people were in the midbar, or wilderness. He offers a surprising explanation (ibid):

“The verse speaks in disparagement (be’genusan) of Israel, [by implying] that they kept only the first Sabbath, and on the second one this one came and desecrated it.”

In other words, this event took place on the second Shabbos they were in the desert; whereas the first one in the desert seemed to be one of complete observation, the second did not follow this precedent.

The Sifsei Chachamim points out a glaring problem with this explanation, namely that it is hard to understand how this was the second Shabbos, or that it followed the first Shabbos which was characterized by a unanimous observance. The Talmud (Shabbos 118b) tells us:

“Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Had Israel kept the first Sabbath, no nation or tongue would have enjoyed dominion over them, for it is said, And it came to pass on the seventh day, that there went out some of the people for to gather; which is followed by, Then came Amalek. R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths, which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.”

It is clear from this that the Jewish people did not keep the first Shabbos. After the manna was introduced to the Jewish people as their staple, Moshe explains that they would take double on Friday as none would fall on Shabbos. Why? Shabbos was to be a day of sanctity, Shabbos Kodesh. The response of the Jewish people was telling. Rather than heed the words of God and Moshe, they go out in search of more manna on Shabbos, and find none. Immediately after, God chastises the people for their obduracy, and in response, Bnei Yisrael no longer engaged in this violation of Shabbos (we will re-visit this soon). The Ibn Ezra (Shemos 16:30) points out that from this point on, there was no violation of Shabbos by the Jewish people except for the incident in the wilderness.

It is quite evident then that the Jewish people indeed did not observe Shabbos the first time they had the opportunity. The Sifsei Chachamim offers an insightful answer, differentiating between the original Shabbos as one of engaging in learning of the mitzvos surrounding Shabbos, while the second was when the true prohibitions and performance took center stage (Tosfos in Shabbos 83b offers another answer). This would mean that the violation of the first Shabbos was of a different character than that of the second. 

Regardless of the historical accuracy, as this is not the focus here, there are other pressing questions that need to be answered. For one, Rashi makes a bold claim in his explanation. The violation of Shabbos by one Jew caused a denigration of the entire nation – over 1 million people!!! Furthermore, his action did not lead to a rebellion by the Jews, inspiring them to reject Shabbos. This individual was warned he was committing a violation, and was subsequently brought to Moshe to be judged accordingly. So we should try and understand how this one individual’s action, through his own use of freewill, could somehow give the entire nation this description of disparagement.

The idea brought by the Talmud needs some clarification as well. Had Bnei Yisrael kept that first Shabbos, they never would have fallen under the dominion of others? How does keeping two Shabboses (one should assume concurrently) lead to Redemption? One other seemingly minor point pops up here. The Talmud points out that had the Jewish people observed the first Shabbos, they would not have lived under the domain of another nation or tongue – for what purpose is the added mention of “tongue” (language) here? 

When we look to Shabbos, we must first understand what makes Shabbos unique. We all know on a personal level how important Shabbos is. However, there is another layer to Shabbos, one we see throughout the Torah and the Talmud. Shabbos was the gift given to the Jewish people. This should not be interpreted merely as something only for the Jews and not for non-Jews. On a deeper level, it is the ultimate expression of our identity as Jews. During the week, we engage with our surrounding empirical world. We work, we relate to the physical world, and we abide by a halachic system that works in harmony with it. Yet on Shabbos, we exit this world and enter the world of the abstract. We engage in studying God, in learning Torah, and in doing so we separate from the world of the empirical. To experience Shabbos as it was designed is to immerse oneself in an experience of the soul, the mind focused and enlightened. This opportunity was given to us, the Jewish people. Our identity as Jews is at its fullest expression on Shabbos. When the entire nation sees and internalizes this value, and is able to realize this identity to its maximum, it unifies us in a powerful way. This could be the allusion to both becoming susceptible to other nations or languages. Language is a feature that is unique to one specific people, and reflects their homogenous identity. In essence, on Shabbos, we are all Jews. 

This idea has direct applicability to the flaw exhibited in Bnei Yisrael’s inability to keep the first Shabbos. When we look at how the first Shabbos was introduced to the Jewish people, we see an interesting subtle distinction. Moshe explains that there will be a double portion of manna on Friday. As such, he advised the people to prepare the manna accordingly so they would be ready for the following day. Moshe then explains (Shemos 16:25-26), “Eat that [the manna saved] today; for today is a sabbath unto the LORD; today ye shall not find it in the field. Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.” The response by the Jews was to go out and search for the manna on Shabbos (there is a debate as to the specific violation, but this is irrelevant to the main point here), which was the “violation” of Shabbos. God responds as follows (ibid 28):

“And the LORD said unto Moses: 'How long refuse ye to keep My commandments and My laws? See that the LORD hath given you the sabbath; therefore He giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’”

The reaction this time was that the Jews observed Shabbos. 

One can see a shift in language between the original presentation of Shabbos, and God’s second presentation. In the first, Shabbos is presented as an opportunity. No mention is really made of any restrictions (this does not mean there were none, just no emphasis). Simply put, Shabbos was there for the taking. Yet after venturing out to find the manna, God now imposes Shabbos onto them – “let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” There is a profound difference between the two transmissions about Shabbos. Viewing Shabbos as an opportunity is much different than how it was presented the second time. The Jewish people were to set aside the mundane and embrace the world of the abstract, as we described above. Yet they could not break from the mundane, and the way they related to Shabbos would now change. God now had to impose Shabbos upon them, and the focus now became the restrictions – this is the second communication. Had the Jewish people willingly accepted Shabbos, the effect on them would have been everlasting. They would possess an ideological strength that would not be susceptible to any external influence. Now, Shabbos became something imposed upon them, and its restrictions became more apparent. It took on a different character, and the change in the nation was permanent. 

This can also help explain the idea of adherence to Shabbos as leading to the redemption. Clearly, this is not just referring to keeping the halachos. Instead, it is speaking of the desired state of mind the nation should engage in on Shabbos. This frame of mind of Shabbos, where one is purely engaged in the study of God, is truly analogous to the time of the redemption, when in a sense every day will be a “mini-Shabbos”. If the Jewish people experience one Shabbos where the entire nation is united in this experience, they obviously will be at a certain level of perfection. But if they desire to return to this experience, they have demonstrated that the first time was not an aberration. In essence, they are living in line with the mentality of redemption, and the ultimate Redemption is merely the natural next step.

Finally, we return to the issue we raised with Rashi as to the effect this one individual had on the entire nation. There are a number of approaches we might be able to take. One possibility is that the Jewish people had an underlying problem that emerged with the sin of this one individual. There is a sense of collective responsibility that exists among the Jewish people (the area of the egla arufa being a prime example), and it is on display here. However, this is not a completely satisfying answer. A friend offered a more credible approach that fits into our overall theme. As we mentioned before, one should not view the concept of Shabbos as being for the Jewish people solely about keeping non-Jews excluded. There is a positive idea of being exclusive, in that Shabbos serves to express our identity to its fullest extent. However, one cannot deny the fact that Shabbos, being only for the Jews, means that non-Jews are “left out”. As we know, throughout history, there is tremendous resentment (an understatement) exhibited by non-Jews against the Jewish people. Quite often, they look to the ideological weakness of the Jews to provide justification for their anti-Semitism. One famous example involves the asara harugei malchus. The impetus for that heinous act was the distorted attack based on the selling of Joseph. Here too, we see this type of distortion. The anti-Semite recognizes the exclusive domain of Shabbos to the Jews. When he sees the inability of the Jew to adhere to Shabbos, he senses an ideological weakness. This explains the tie-in between the attack of Amalek and the failure to abide by Shabbos. The same can be said about the case of the second Shabbos. The anti-Semite sees one person violate Shabbos and immediately associates it with the entire nation. No doubt it is a distortion, and it is not even something that the nation themselves are collectively responsible for. However, in the area of Shabbos, we must be sensitive. How we present ourselves as Jews to the world is, in many ways, tied to Shabbos.

In the end, we see the importance of Shabbos as it pertains to the identity of the Jewish people. We also see the unique opportunity that the Jewish people had to accept Shabbos, and the impact it had on the nation due to this failure. Finally, we see how the world around us associates our flaw in our adherence to Shabbos with an ideological weakness in the nation as a whole. Through it all, the centrality of Shabbos in the Jewish faith is something that cannot be argued with.