Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The spiritual view
To dedicate this lesson

Shabat As Value


Rabbi Berel Wein

Tevet 5768
While many may view Judaism as a system of laws and rules and only that, I feel that this is an erroneous and even dangerous judgment. Judaism in its essence is a system of values and it is precisely those underlying values that are then expressed in a concrete and practical form through the observances of Jewish tradition, ritual and commandments. In fact one may view the entire complex of halachic decision making as the constant attempt to reconcile or adjudicate conflicting values - each one of which is correct in abstract and in a social vacuum - in the practical reality of daily living. The Torah lives in everyday life through the detail and observance of the law. But it is the value system of the Torah and Judaism itself that underlies all of the minutiae of the law. Perhaps nowhere is this observation more cogent and true than in relation to the holy day of Shabat. As seen from the outside, Shabat is a vast collection of laws and prohibitions, do’s and don’ts, that create a sometimes bewildering maze of complicated and restricted behavior. Yet for the true Shabat observant Jew, the Shabat is the most serene, restful, palpably most holy experience of one’s lifetime. This is because the sophisticated, educated and observant Jew views Shabat as a value that governs one’s behavior on that holy day. It is not that the law shapes the value and importance of Shabat to the Jew. It is the value of the Shabat itself that creates all of the laws and observances that shape the Shabat day and give it its outward appearance and behavior pattern. And thus the influence of Shabat extends over all of the other days of the week as well.

Shabat is the Jewish affirmation that we live in a universe created and sustained by Divine Will. This is the supreme religious value which Shabat represents. As we come to understand more of the physical laws that govern our universe, the Jew is strengthened in this belief in a created universe and in the presence of a Creator. Einstein famously said in regard to his search for underlying general theories that would explain the behavior of the physical universe: "God does not play with dice." Even though one is privileged to believe whatever one wishes - this is the Jewish idea of bechira chafshith - nevertheless the existence and the observance of Shabat for thousands of years stands as strong testimony and eternal belief in created world and not in randomness or pure chance. To affirm this concept of created and Creator, we are given laws and behavior patterns that sanctify and separate this day of Shabat from all other days and mundane functions. Shabat becomes a day of testimony to creation and to eternity - the twin pillars of Jewish belief. It is not accidental at all therefore that Shabat observance is the dividing line in halachic rulings between Jewish continuity and eventual assimilation and loss. Though Shabat observance per se does not guarantee Jewish family success in all instances, it is clear that Shabat non-observance opens the door wide to the free fall of assimilation, intermarriage and self-hatred that is unfortunately rampant in today’s Jewish world. The words of Achad Haam that "More than the Jews guarded the Shabat, the Shabat guarded the Jews" have never rung more true than today.

The other underpinning value of Shabat is to remind of our own uniqueness as a people with a mission and a destiny. Though Judaism taught the world about the gift of a day of rest during the week, the particularity of observance of this day of rest has remained uniquely and exclusively Jewish. This is what all the laws and rituals are all about. Hillel said that "If I am not for myself - particular and exclusive - than what am I?" That is one of the great aspects of Shabat - it is about ourselves, our past, our tradition and hopes. It awakens within us our sense of uniqueness and self-worth. We have shared the idea of a day of rest with all of humankind for "If I am only for myself, then again what am I?" But Shabat has remained only ours for it exemplifies the supreme value of the combination of Jewish particularism and universality that is so characteristic of Torah and Judaism. To retain this value, laws, ritual, behavior patterns are required in order to give actual life to otherwise lofty but theoretical values. Thus Shabat as a basic Jewish value lives on through our observances and appreciation of that holy day.
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