Rejecting a Heretical Hypothesis

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The Torah is replete with seemingly “contradictory” statements and varying degrees of “inconsistencies”. To some, such writing is evidence of multiple authorship; after all, how and why would one author compile such a confusing type of narrative? For those who accept the Divine authorship of the Torah, these instances present themselves as great opportunities. Is this due to some type of intellectual sadism? On the contrary, the chance to read and understand the answers given to us by talmidei chachamim is the possibility to uncover the incredible and infinite fountain of ideas contained within the Torah. 

A perfect example of this very opportunity lies in the famous differences found in the fourth commandment of the aseres hadibros (the Ten Commandments), the command of Shabbos observance.  Nearly everyone is familiar with the use of “zachor” (remember), as found in parshas Yisro, vs “shamor” (gaurd), found in parshas V’Eschanan. In fact, there are other differences as well. In Parshas Yisro, we see the following (Shemos 20:10):

“For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

This implies that the reason for Shabbos is tied to creation. However, when we look at the way it is presented in parshas V’Eschanan, there is what appears to be a completely different reason offered (5:15):

“And thou shalt remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day”

In this version, we see the reason for Shabbos tied to the exodus from Egypt. At this point, there are those who would stop and ascertain that this clearly indicates a different author. Maybe one author offered the creation rationale due to living prior to the Exodus, while the second one wrote it as a result of his own personal experiences in and out of Egypt. Maybe. Before dwelling on such hypotheticals, we should turn to the words of the Rambam and Ramban. Each presents a different viewpoint regarding this variance in reasons. 

The Ramban (ibid) quotes the Rambam’s explanation (found in the Moreh Nevuchim 2:31) for these two reasons:

“And the Rabbi [Moshe ben Maimon] stated in the Moreh Nevuchim that the ‘first statement’ [i.e., citing the Creation, as given in the Book of Exodus] expressed the honor and distinction of the day, just as He said ‘therefore the Eternal hath blessed the Sabbath-day, and hallowed it’, and hence He mentioned the reason ‘for in six days’ etc. But there he warned us to observe the Sabbath because of our having been slaves, working all day against our will and never having rest, and he commanded us now to abstain from work and rest in order that we remember the kindness of God towards us in bringing forth from slavery to rest. Thus, the Sababth in general has two reasons: that we believe in the creation of the world [creation ex-nihilo], that the world has a God who is the Creator, and that we remember further the great kindness that He did with us, that we are His servants, since He acquired us for Himself as servants”

The Rambam appears to be agreeing that in fact there are two separate reasons for Shabbos. The first is linked to creation, while the second involves us recognizing the kindness of God in taking us out of Egypt. In a sense, he is simply answering the question with the very question itself. Why were there two versions written in the Torah? Because, in fact, there are two reasons. However, it would seem logical to assume that there is something that ties the two together. What exactly is the mechanism allowing for the individual to see God’s kindness concerning the Exodus…specifically on Shabbos? It is difficult to understand how, according to the Rambam, one is supposed to “balance” these two ideas concerning Shabbos.

The Ramban is bothered by the Rambam’s approach, albeit for a different reason. He questions how the purpose involving remembering Egypt functions in the structure of Shabbos. The abstention from melocho, or work, and its bond to creation are evident; in a simple way, just as God “rested”, so too we rest. The abstention from work, however, has no clear tie to the Exodus. There is nothing obvious in one’s behavior on Shabbos that would offer a clear demonstration that this is related to the Exodus. As such, the Ramban proceeds to offer his own explanation for the two reasons:

“Rather, the Sabbath is like all the other commandments, but it contains a reminder of the Creation because we rest on the day that God ‘ceased from work’ thereon and ‘rested’. And it is more fitting to say that because the Exodus from Egypt is evidence of the existence of an eternal God, who caused everything to come into existence through His will and who has supreme power, as has been explained in the first commandment – therefore he stated here: ‘If there ever arises a doubt in your heart concerning the Sabbath that evidences the creation of the world by the will and power of God, you should remember what your eyes saw at the exodus from Egypt which is, to you, the evidence [of His infinite power] and the remembrance [of His deeds].’ Thus the Sabbath is a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, and the Exodus from Egypt is a remembrance of the Sabbath, for in it [the Sabbath] they remember and say that it is God who makes new signs and wonders in everything and does with everything according to His will since it is He who created everything at the beginning of creation. This, then, is the sense of the expression, ‘therefore the Eternal your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath’.”

The Ramban sees one underlying idea tying the two reasons given in the Torah. A person sees God through the experience of Shabbos. He also can see God through the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, according to the Ramban, the primary objective of the entire Exodus was a “proof” of the existence of God. He writes in Shemos concerning the first commandment of the aseres hadibros (Shemos 20:2):

“He said ‘who brought you out of the land of Egypt’, because His taking them out from there was the evidence establishing the existence and will of God, for it was with His knowledge and providence that we came out from there. The Exodus is also evidence for the creation of the world…”

Clearly, according to the Ramban, the experience of the Exodus served as “evidence” of God. Therefore, as he writes above, it is in a sense no different than Shabbos.

This would seem to be a fundamental argument between the Rambam and Ramban as to the overall purpose of Shabbos. However, with some analysis, the reality is that they are not really that far apart. What is the nature of their debate? The Rambam seems to keep the two reasons separate. Indeed, there is a differentiation between the two, as they reflect disparate ideas. 

The Rambam (Maimonides) begins with an emphasis on a realization as God the Creator, being the objective of Shabbos. The structure of abstention from work on the day of Shabbos creates a unique environment, where the Jew’s mind turns away from the inventiveness of the physical world to the creativity of the abstract and metaphysical world.  In this state, he can come to see ideas about Godm obstructed by a “work-filled” week. This does not mean man is incapable of thinking of God during the week. Rather, he competes for time away from the normal work routine; the world of the physical is a constant presence in his thoughts. Shabbos, devoid of this part of his life, allows him a level of focus he cannot achieve during the week. Thus, the tie between Shabbos and recognizing the Creator. When the Jew enters into this state, he faces a degree of self-awareness, knowing full well this is an incredible interruption in his daily routine. It is at that moment that he can truly appreciate the idea of the Exodus. The idea of Shabbos, where man discards melocho (work), cannot exist in the mindset of the enslaved. His time belongs to someone else. He has no ability escape this reality. His existence is intrinsically one of physical work. This is in direct contrast with the state of mind on Shabbos, his mind free to focus on God. Without question, the opportunity to engage in this mindset is the ultimate act of chesed (kindness) from God. The two concepts can now be seen as one process. The Jew first sees God in this unique state, and he then reflects on how the Exodus from Egypt allowed for this state, on a practical level, to come into fruition.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) does not dispute every contention offered by the Rambam. He does start at the same basic point as the Rambam, noting that Shabbos serves as a vehicle to recognizing God. It would seem as well that he agrees with how this emerges due to the construct of the day, much like the Rambam. The Ramban, though, sees the role of the remembrance of the Exodus in a different way than the Rambam. According to the Ramban, the primary objective of the Exodus was to prove the existence of God. God was seen as Creator and all-knowing. Yet this does not mean that this should be seen as overlapping or superfluous on Shabbos itself. It could be the Ramban maintained that using the day of Shabbos as a vehicle to recognizing God is a very abstract type of pursuit. The removal of melocho leaves a void; the Jew must then try and fill that void by turning to God. A gap of sorts exists; no positive mechanism is in place, no clear path. This is where the Exodus comes into play. The Jew needs to turn to the experience of the Exodus. He reflects on the specifics of the event, and he sees God’s guidance of the event. He now finds himself with the necessary stepping stone to understand the reality of God. In a sense, the Ramban is advocating the use of the experience of the Exodus as the stepping stone to the more abstract pursuit of knowledge of God. 

Two reasons are given for Shabbos in the Torah. Two insightful answers are offered by two of the greatest minds of Judaism. Both the Rambam and Ramban do not shy away from this apparent challenge. There is no inclination to see the words on a literal level and conclude that there was more than one author of the Torah. Instead, using the methodology from Sinai, they uncover the ideas lying underneath the surface. It is not just that those who deny the reality of the Divine origin of the Torah are in essence denying a fundamental idea in Judaism. They are also closing the door to the beautiful ideas contained within.