R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon ben Yochai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths as they should be kept, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said: “Thus said the Eternal of the chamberlains that keep my Sabbaths” (Isaiah 56:4), and this is followed by: “I will bring them to my holy mountain…” (Isaiah 56:7). Shabbat 118b
Shabbat is known as a “foretaste of the world to come,” a day where we briefly see a picture of what paradise will be. On this day, we act like the world is completely at peace. We take great care to separate the holy and profane, for on Shabbat, our senses are heightened: we sing different tunes at services, we take an afternoon nap, we relate to God and one another in kinder, gentler ways. One day of seven when we transform our thoughts, actions and prayers.
Yet, our text draws attention to the plural form of the word “Shabbat” used in the book of Isaiah. Why not refer to Shabbat as a whole entity, one commandment and one day? Isn’t it so special because it is the one day of holiness in a week of banality?
Tradition holds that if all the people of Israel manage to make a perfect Shabbat not just once, but two weeks in a row, our communal effort will be powerful enough to usher in the world to come. We will indeed hike God’s holy mountain together and reach the summit. After all, making the peace for the world to come must be a communal effort. We need someone to lead; we need someone to help the stragglers in the rear. We need someone strong in the middle to carry our supplies. We won’t make it to the top in one day, but if we plow through the whole week and continue our hike as strong in the end as we did in the beginning, we will finally achieve our goal because we worked together and stayed determined.
But what are we to make of the words “keep two Sabbaths as they should be kept”? As Reform Jews, this passage can be problematic. We don’t necessarily agree with the minhag, or tradition, of not driving or cooking on Shabbat. We question if such customs are really what is meant by “keeping the Sabbath.” What is really a “complete” Shabbat?
The mystical Kabbalists of Tzfat (the historic center of Jewish mysticism in Israel) were entranced with the dualities of the Sabbath-time. In the 16th Century, the Kabbalists adopted Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz’s mystical poem, L’cha Dodi, as a foundational part of their Kabbalat Shabbat services. Many of us are familiar with the phrase Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, ““guard” and “remember”: a single command,” from this popular Friday night poem. The words shamor v’zachor come from two separate passages in the Torah where we are told “to guard” and “to remember” the Sabbath; in Deuteronomy 5:12 and Exodus 20:8, respectively. This is a challenging discrepancy in the Torah, though. Why such a deliberate change in word choice in one of our most important commandments? How can the testimony of the words God inscribed on the tablets be different in two books of the Torah?
The Kabbalists answer this by saying that at Sinai God told us in one breath to guard and to remember the Sabbath. These two things make up one complete entity and a complete Sabbath. We can approach it as such: “to remember” the Sabbath is more spiritual and metaphysical. It is really to instill the meaning of Shabbat in ourselves: love, brotherhood, piety, thanksgiving. “To guard” the Sabbath is more physical. It is our physical cessation from work and our actions that make the day different. Only by combining these concepts are we able to have a full, Jewish Shabbat. This is one reason we have two candlesticks today in our homes. One represents the shamor and the other represents the zachor, together creating the one light of Shabbat.
Thus we see that a “complete” Shabbat is not necessarily just a halachic one. While the laws of the halachah help us on our trek towards the world to come, they are just the tools. The real power behind our journey to perfecting the world is the spiritual unity of our hiking team. If we can work together long enough to bring together all divided aspects of our world, if we can advance long enough and strong enough to the next week, then we are that much closer to completeness and the world to come.
Questions for Reflection:
- What does a complete Shabbat look like for you?
- If we are instrumental in making the world to come, why in Isaiah 56:7 does it say that God will bring to us God’s holy mountain?
- Why does it take such effort to produce a day of rest?
Adapted from Linda Motzkin, Aleph Isn't Enough: Hebrew For Adults Book II
(New York: UAHC Press, 2001), 46.
Mara Judd is a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College and a rabbinic intern for the Union for Reform Judaism. She is originally from Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey.