Parshat Yitro 5777
Rabbi Bernie Fox
For in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth and all that is within them and He rested on the seventh. Therefore, Hashem blessed the Shabbat day and He sanctified it. (Sefer Shemot 20:10)
And you should recall that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt and Hashem, your L-rd, took you forth from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore, Hashem, your L-rd, commanded you to observe the Shabbat. (Sefer Devarim 5:14)
Differences in the two texts of the Decalogue
The Aseret HaDibrot – the Decalogue – is presented twice in the Torah. It is presented first in our parasha and a second time in Parshat VaEtchanan. There are various differences in the texts of the Decalogue in these two presentations. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra dismisses many of these as inconsequential. He explains that in Parshat VaEtchanan, Moshe is reviewing the content of the Decalogue for the nation. His intention is to communicate its content, not to repeat it verbatim. Therefore, he chooses the words and phrases that he feels best communicate the material without regard to inconsequential deviations in the wording.
However, some of the differences between the two presentation are not minor. Some are fundamental differences in content. One of these major differences is in the two presentations of Shabbat. The first quotation above is from our parasha. We are commanded to observe the Shabbat in order to reinforce a fundamental tenet of the Torah – the universe is the creation of Hashem.
The second quotation above is from Parshat VaEtchanan. This is Moshe’s presentation or review of the imperative to observe Shabbat. He explains that we observe Shabbat in order to recall our redemption from slavery in Egypt. Moshe makes no mention of Shabbat memorializing creation. In other words, each version presents its own explanation for the observance of Shabbat. This is not a minor discrepancy. How can it be reconciled?
Among the commentators there are a number of responses to this problem. We will focus upon the solution and insight suggested by Maimonides. This solution resolves the apparent contradiction between the texts, it addresses additional issues, and it suggests an important message regarding our values and priorities.
Moshe’s objective was to motivate
Maimonides’ solution is based upon an implicit premise. What was Moshe’s objective in reviewing with the nation the Aseret HaDibrot before his death? Maimonides seems to assume that his objective was not limited to recapitulating the content. Moshe was also focused upon encouraging the people to observe the commandments. This objective impacted his presentation. It determined the elements of the Decalogue that he addressed and how he presented them. In other words, the original presentation of the Decalogue in our parasha is focused solely upon the fundamental content of the commandments. Moshe’s review has a broader or different perspective. It is designed to encourage and even admonish the people to carefully observe the commandments.
Let’s consider an analogy. It’s Friday afternoon and a parent wants his son to straighten up his room before Shabbat. As soon as his son arrives home, the dad instructs his son of the expectation. These instructions are detailed. Of course, the son has other things to do before he gets to this task. Shabbat is approaching and the father realizes that if the room is to be straightened-up, the chore requires immediate attention. He speaks to his son again and reviews the expectation. This review of the expectation is different than the original presentation. There is no need for the father to review the details. He wants to make sure the chore is completed. In this presentation, the dad focuses upon the importance of preparing for Shabbat and explains that this is the son’s opportunity to participate in honoring the Shabbat. In both presentations the father is discussing the same task. However, in the first the focus is upon the substance of the task. In the second, the substance of the task requires less attention. Now, the father focuses on motivating.
This illustration demonstrates how the same task will be presented differently as required by the situation. Maimonides employs this principle to explain the discrepancy between the presentations of Shabbat in the two iterations of the Decalogue.
The meaning of Shabbat
He explains that in the first presentation – found in our parasha – the Torah is presenting the basic concept of Shabbat. In this context, the Torah’s focus is upon the innate meaning of Shabbat. It communicates the significance of the day. It is in this context that the Torah explains that Shabbat recalls the creation. Hashem created the universe. He fashioned it in six days and then rested on the seventh. The observance of Shabbat recalls and memorializes the universe’s origin.
Shabbat was given to the Jewish people
Moshe’s review focuses on our obligation to observe Shabbat. It explains Bnai Yisrael’s selection for the role of observing this commandment. We were selected because we were redeemed from Egypt. Our redemption endows this commandment – which is a day of rest – with a special significance. In other words, because of our redemption from slavery we are uniquely fit to observe this commandment. How does our experience of bondage and liberation endow us with this unique suitability?
Maimonides explains that in Egypt there was no day of rest. Our activities and our lives were controlled and fashioned by our masters. If on some occasion we did have a respite from our heavy burden, it was granted to us at the sole volition of a master. Such a hiatus in a slave’s labor is not truly a respite; it is a reprieve that will soon be terminated at the whim of the master. Only a free person – one who is empowered to act upon is own volition – can experience authentic rest from labor and toil. According to Maimonides, our emergence from bondage into freedom uniquely prepared us to experience a day of rest. Any person can select a day of the week and decide to not labor on that day. But for us the designation of a day as a period for respite and contemplation has unique meaning.
Again, let’s employ an analogy to understand this insight. A baseball team fields nine players. The coach must decide who will play shortstop. He considers his options and he selects a player who his very agile, has an accurate throwing arm, and is focused and alert. The position of shortstop has its own unique objectives. The shortstop covers the gap in the infield between second and third bases. He fields most of the infield grounders or one-hoppers hit in his direction and often has to handle line-drives. It is his job to throw out runners to first base and sometimes make a play to second, third or even home. This is the position. In selecting the player to play the position, the coach needs to consider the requisite skills, gifts, and talents. These are agility, accuracy in throwing, focus, and alertness. Returning to our discussion, Shabbat commemorates creation. Bnai Yisrael were selected to observe Shabbat because background and history rendered us uniquely suited for the role.
Let’s summarize before continuing. The first iteration of the Aseret HaDibrot focuses upon the objective of Shabbat. Its objective is to recall that Hashem is the creator of the universe. The second iteration focuses upon the selection of the Jewish people for the role of observing Shabbat. In order to understand our selection, we must recognize how Shabbat communicates its message. The means is through observing a day of rest, every week. The character of the day as respite from labor and dedication to contemplation is most intensely experienced by a people who has emerged from slavery to freedom. Therefore, we were selected to receive the Shabbat.
Shabbat summarizes Hashem’s love for us
Maimonides adds that these two presentations of Shabbat combine to create an integrated and comprehensive message. The observance of Shabbat recalls Hashem’s creation. Our selection as the nation who observes Shabbat reminds us of our redemption from bondage. These two messages merge into a comprehensive expression of Hashem’s lovingkindness toward the Jewish people. He has provided us with a spiritual legacy – a Torah that teaches us the most fundamental truths. He has provided us with the foundation for material advancement – our liberation from slavery.
The Shabbat liturgy reflects the two version of the Decalogue
Maimonides’ insight resolves a number of additional problems. The Friday night Amidah for Shabbat focuses upon Shabbat as commemorating creation. Its central blessing includes the passages from the creation narrative that discuss Shabbat. The Amidah of Shabbat morning does mention the meaning of Shabbat but its focus is overwhelmingly upon the selection of Jewish people to observe Shabbat. Based upon Maimonides’ insight, we can easily understand these two treatments.
The central benediction of Shabbat Amidah of Friday night begins with the statement:
You sanctified the seventh day for Your name. It is the completion of the creation of heavens and earth. You blessed it from among all of the days and sanctified it from among all periods of time.
This introduction sets the tone for the benediction. It mirrors the first iteration of the Decalogue. Its focus is upon the meaning of Shabbat. Therefore, the blessing discusses Shabbat as the memorial of creation and does not make mention of our redemption.
The Shabbat morning Amidah is not focused upon the objective of Shabbat. Instead, its focus is almost entirely upon our selection to observe it. This focus is derived directly from the second iteration of the Aseret HaDibrot. The theme of this second iteration was adopted by the Sages in this Amidah. Therefore, rather than focusing upon the meaning of Shabbat, the central benediction discusses our selection for the role of observing Shabbat.
Wealth and its meaning and purpose
Finally, Maimonides’ insight provides us with an important message regarding priorities. As he explains, Hashem’s lovingkindness is expressed in the spiritual and material gifts that he bestowed upon us. Shabbat is one of these spiritual gifts. It focuses upon one of the great and fundamental truths of the Torah – Hashem’s creation of the universe. It also reminds us of our rescue from Egypt. This is a material gift. Our freedom is the foundation of every material achievement that has followed and been built upon it. Shabbat is designed to remind us of both of these expressions of Hashem’s lovingkindness. The integration of both messages within Shabbat suggests their intimate relationship with one another. Let us further explore and delineate this relationship.
The experience of liberation gives the Jewish people the capacity to more fully appreciate a day of rest. In other words, material achievements create the foundation for a spiritual encounter. Also, the observance of Shabbat gives meaning and purpose to our liberation. The two acts of kindness complement one another. Liberation makes us more intensely appreciate Shabbat; observance of Shabbat endows freedom with meaning and purpose. This is an excellent model for the optimal interaction and relationship between our material and spiritual endeavors.
Our material achievements provide us with the opportunity to advance our spiritual development. Conversely, our spiritual endeavors provide meaning to our material achievements. Ultimately, Maimonides’ message reminds us to devote ourselves to spiritual development. Focus on material achievement as an end in itself cannot really provide fulfillment and satisfaction. Once a person has provided for oneself and one’s family, the pursuit quickly resolves into an exercise in greed or psychological insecurity. Greed can never be satisfied and deep insecurities do not yield to reason. Consequently, the single-minded pursuit of the accumulation of wealth does not end in fulfillment. However, the person who utilizes one’s material wellbeing to support pursuit of spiritual development will endow these material accomplishments with real meaning. Furthermore, one who nurtures a strong spiritual life, will discover meaning and fulfillment.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary of Sefer Shemot, 20:1.
 Maimonides’ interpretation of the message of the second Decalogue is not completely clear. One could argue that we were selected to receive the Torah; Shabbat is one of its mitzvot. No special explanation is required for our selection to receive a specific commandment. Abravanel, in his commentary on Maimonides’ comments, suggests that we would expect Shabbat to be included in the laws given to the descendants of Noach. Its message that Hashem is creator is universal. It is relevant to Jew and non-Jew. Maimonides understands the second text of the Decalogue to address this issue.
Possibly, Maimonides’ position can be understood in the context of his comments in Hilchot Melachim 10:9-10. There, he explains that generally, a non-Jew may adopt observance of any of the Torah’s mitzvot. For example, a non-Jew may adopt observance of the mitzvot of kashrut. However, a non-Jew may not adopt observance of Shabbat. From these comments, it is clear that the relationship between the Jewish people and Shabbat is different than the relationship with most other mitzvot. We enjoy an exclusive relationship with Shabbat; a non-Jew may not join us in its observance.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 31..