by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – July 22, 2010
In the Torah section of VaEtchanan, G-d commands the people of Israel, “Safeguard the Sabbath day to sanctify it… Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is the sabbath of the L-rd your G-d, you shall not do any labor” (Devarim 5:12-14). In the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 2a, our Rabbis explain that the verse’s reference to “labor” is to be defined by those tasks that characterized the “labor” necessary for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) constructed during the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert (Sh’mot 25-27). Those tasks included such acts as planting, plowing, reaping, trapping, cooking, baking, writing, preparing clothes, building structures, constructing pottery and the transportation of materials from one domain to another.
The Torah, however, did not prohibit us from what we colloquially term “labor” or “work”, namely, physical exertion. Were physical exertion prohibited in and of itself, we would be unable to do practically anything. We would be unable to wash our hands or face, nor would we be able to dress ourselves nor don a prayer shawl nor lift a Bible or tractate to study nor even lift a dish, plate or pot of food to partake of in a festive meal. Such a prohibition would practically compel us to wile away the entire day in bed. How would we then, by such a prohibition, “sanctify” the day of Sabbath? Moreover, we find that “labor” is not to be engaged in because “six days the L-rd made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day” (Sh’mot 20:11). How would a prohibition of physical exertion relate itself to G-d’s creation of the universe? Did G-d engage in physical exertion or rest from such exertion? Certainly not.
Our Sages, consequently, do not define the prohibition of “labor” by physical exertion but by the aforementioned tasks. One is not to plant even one seed, an act that creates the product of a plant or flower, fruit or vegetable. One is not to plow even slightly, an act that creates a furrow that revives that portion of ground. One may not reap a fruit or plant even the size of a dry fig, an act that creates the availability of a desirable product. One may not bake food even the size of a dry fig, an act that creates a newly available pleasantly prepared food. One may not build a structure of any size, an act that creates a newly useful product. And one may not transport an object from a private domain to public domain, an act that creates, or transforms a guarded object (as characterized in private domain) into, an unguarded and exposed object; and, once an object is in public domain, one may not transport it from one location to another, an act that creates an object that, by being moved to another location, is now exposed to different elements than it was in the previous location. In short, we are prohibited to perform a creative act that generates, in a physical or phenomenal sense, a meaningful product of consequence.
Through refraining from the creative act of meaningful consequence on the day of Sabbath, we bear constant testimony to the ultimate such creative act, G-d’s creation of the universe. G-d, too, was involved in the creative act for six days, but, on the seventh day, G-d ceased the creative act and was content with the splendor of His labor and waited for the human creature to develop His world further. So, we, too, are enjoined to engage in the creative act for six days and on the seventh day to enjoy the fruits of our labor and wait for the next week to develop further our previous week’s accomplishments.
Refraining from such creative acts on the Sabbath, shows our appreciation and acknowledgement of the wondrous act of creation performed by G-d at the universe’s inception. By acknowledging G-d’s actions, we stand a chance at His acknowledging ours. Ignoring His acts would lead Him to ignore ours. The decision is ours.