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The Avodah Blog

Shabbat: Radical Release from Control and Domination — D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro

This week, we make it official. After the desert adjustment period of acculturation and habituation to some tastes of commandments in last week’s parasha, this week, we come to Mt. Sinai, with clouds, thunder, lightning, mixed-up senses, and fearful preparation, and in a booming voice, God speaks to us and tells us what it is. Launching the Revelation are the Ten Commandments (literally, “Ten Statements”), at the heart of which is the commandment of Shabbat. This is not the first appearance of Shabbat in the Torah: the first creation narrative concludes with God resting on the seventh day and sanctifying that time. As we discussed last week, some sages detect hints of the introduction of Shabbat in the strange law-giving at Marah, and immediately thereafter, our ancestors were given manna to eat with the explicit instructions to collect a double-portion on Friday and to abstain on Shabbat. Prior to arriving at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are already practicing Shabbat, but now they receive its origin story and grand purpose:

Remember the Shabbat day, to sanctify it.

Six days you shall serve, and do all your work;  but the seventh day is Shabbat to YHWH your God; do not do any work — neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your alien who is within your gates. For in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the Shabbat day, and sanctified it” (Sh’mot/Exodus 20:7-10). 

Forty years later, on the eve of Moshe dying and sending the Jewish people to begin responsible, covenantal life in the Land of Israel, Moshe delivers his book-long charge, including repeating many mitzvot/commandments, including the Ten Commandments. Moshe presents his words as the verbatim repetition of the Commandments at Sinai, but this time, some peculiar differences show up with regard to Shabbat:

Observe the Shabbat day, to sanctify it, as YHWH your God commanded you. 

Six days you shall serve, and do all your work;  but the seventh day is Shabbat unto YHWH your God; do not do any work — neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your alien who is within your gates — in order that your male servant and your female servant rest as you. And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and YHWH your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, YHWH your God commanded you to do the Shabbat day” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

Are we commanded to remember Shabbat or to observe it, and what’s the difference? Even more strikingly, is the purpose of Shabbat to imitate God’s rest, to relinquish control and manipulation of nature, of the ecosystem, and to let everything be, or is the purpose to make sure that as we transition from being powerless to powerful, that we break cycles of labor exploitation? A classic midrash (Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, c. 225 C.E., Land of Israel) teaches that there is no contradiction, just a commandment unusually rich in meaning: “‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’ — both of them were said in one speech-act.” Our liturgy reflects this thick, complex understanding of Shabbat. When we make kiddush on Friday night, declaring the sanctity of Shabbat over wine, we call shabbat both “a commemoration of the work of creation/zikaron le-ma‘aseh bereishit” and “a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt/zekher liytziyat mitzrayim”. The 16th Century mystic Rav Shlomo Alkabetz’s hit song, “Lekha Dodi”, which has become the centerpiece of Kabbalat Shabbat-Friday evening liturgy throughout the Jewish people opens with this declaration: “‘Observe’ and ‘Remember’ in one speech-act did the unique God make us hear”.

The core law expressed is basically identical, though with a little more detail in Devarim: rest on Shabbat is the cessation of labor for everyone in one’s orbit. No support staff. That means that for bourgeois people, and certainly for wealthy people, who go through life supported by a service class Shabbat may be, in certain senses, a more difficult day than the other days of the week. Shabbat rest bears little in common with bourgeois senses of leisure. 

When I lived in Israel, I frequently found myself caught in the middle of what was to be a sad public argument about Shabbat. So-called religious people would demand that public utilities such as buses and privately owned public accommodations, such as cafes and malls, be closed on Shabbat. Their arguments were fundamentally capitalist: I shouldn’t be made culpable for Shabbat violations by MY tax dollars paying for buses! It disrupts MY Shabbat vibe to have cafes and malls bustling! Their secular interlocutors, so-called progressives, would counter, just as your Shabbat rest is going to synagogue and singing songs, MY Shabbat rest is going to a cafe, to a movie, going shopping! Why should I be unable to rest on Shabbat MY way because of your imposition? Meanwhile, almost no one centered or even named the laborers at the center of the story. I do not care about some bogus religious person feeling their hands are clean because their tax dollars are not used for commerce on Shabbat. In a civil society, we all pay for everything and duke out what we should pay for. Buses on Shabbat are far from the worst desecration of Torah commandments paid for with public money in a militarized state. The guardians of Torah pervert the Torah. The bourgeois progressives pervert progressive values, too, and could stand to learn from Torah. When these (almost entirely Ashkenazi) progressives go to the cafe or the mall, who’s serving them? Who’s cooking? Who’s cleaning the floor and taking out the garbage? Mostly much lower-income people, far more likely to be economically persecuted Mizrahim from more traditional backgrounds, or Palestinians for the truly invisibilized jobs. This Shabbat of leisure for the wealthy to indulge in being pampered by the working class and poor is the exact opposite of the Shabbat commanded in the Torah, which is a day to interrupt socio-economic hierarchy and point toward a repaired world that has erased such subordination. Shabbat as a day of leisure through consumption undermines the Torah’s vision to reset and let the natural order rest, to remind humans that we do not have to be in control all the time. Shabbat as a day of leisure through consumption forgets that we were a structural, inherent service class in Egypt, at the beck and call of our free superiors. 

How does the rubber hit the road on Shabbat as the interruption of labor exploitation? Consider this passage from the Biblical book of Nehemia, chapter 13, in which the leader of the Jewish society in the land of Israel, newly reconstituting empowered life after being permitted to return from exile, deals with the tensions that erupt in culture, c. 430 BCE. 

15 In those days I saw in Judah some treading wine presses on Shabbat, and bringing in heaps of grain, and loading it on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, and figs, and every kind of burden, and they brought it into Jerusalem on the Shabbat day, so I admonished them that same day for selling provisions. 16 And the Tyrians who lived there were bringing fish, and all sorts of wares, and selling on Shabbat to the Judeans and in Jerusalem. 17 So I castigated the nobles of Judah, saying to them, “What is this bad thing that you are doing, profaning the Shabbat day?! 18 Didn’t your ancestors do this, and our God brought all this badness upon us, and upon this city?! Yet you are adding wrath upon Israel by profaning the Shabbat!” 19 And it happened that when shadows covered the gates of Jerusalem before Shabbat, I gave word that the doors should be shut, and I gave word that they should not be opened until after Shabbat, and some of my youths I stationed over the gates, so that no burden be brought in on the Shabbat day. 20 So the merchants and vendors of every product lodged outside of Jerusalem once or twice. 21 So I admonished them, saying, “Why are you lodging along the wall?! If you do it again, I will lay hands on you!” From that time forth, they did not come on Shabbat.”

This text is challenging for liberal Jews like us who are used to thinking of Shabbat as ritual law to be celebrated pluralistically, as is meaningful to different people. That is clearly not how Nehemia sees it, nor how the Torah sees it. Shabbat is economic justice and environmental regulation. Nehemia is like union leaders who threaten violence if factories hire scabs, or like state regulators who threaten prosecution if a company violates labor laws or environmental laws. When the owning class, the wholesalers, the companies, set up commerce, it will be impossible for the working class to sit out, because other working class people will get in on it. Eventually you’ll lose your job if you’re not willing to work all seven days. The market has to be shut down. Nehemia is a left-wing leader and a left-wing text.

In a famous, blistering prophecy rejecting bourgeois, religious performativeness that does not accompany socio-economic radicalism, a text well-known as the haftarah on Yom Kippur, Isaiah famously castigates the people (chapter 58, adapted from Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s translation): 

“Look! On the very day you fast, you keep scrabbling for wealth;

On the very day you fast, you keep oppressing all your workers.

4 Look! You fast in strife and contention.

You strike with a wicked fist.

You are not fasting today in such a way

As to make your voices heard on high.

5 Is that the kind of fast that I desire?

Is that really a day for people to “press down their egos”?

Am I commanding you to droop your heads like bulrushes

And lie around in sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast day,

The kind of day that the God of the Burning Bush would wish?

6 No!

This is the kind of fast that I desire:

Unlock the hand-cuffs put on by wicked power!

Untie the ropes of the yoke!

Let the oppressed go free,

And break off every yoke!

7 Share your bread with the hungry.

Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your home.

When you see them naked, clothe them;

They are your flesh and blood;

Don’t hide yourself from them.”

The prophecy goes on, though: Shabbat observance through the cessation of commerce is on the side of the ledger along with unlocking hand-cuffs, not the side of fasting:

13 If you refrain from trampling My Shabbat

And from doing your business on My sacred day;

If you will call Shabbat delightful,

Honored, for the Holy One, YHWH,

And honor it by refraining from doing your usual ways,

From finding business and speaking chatter,

14 Then indeed you will find delight in YHWH.

For then I will set you all with Me, in the Majesty of Nurture

Astride the heights of Earth.

Then I will let you eat your fill.

From what is truly due you as the heirs of Jacob,

For the mouth of YHWH has spoken.”

As we enter into Shabbat ready to receive Torah anew, to recommit to a Jewish life of responsible freedom, I invite us to consider what the mitzvah of Shabbat calls us to do, what it calls us to interrupt, what it calls us to unlearn about ourselves, and what it says to the world we inhabit.

Shabbat shalom. 

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