The Importance of Shabbat: What is Sabbath All About? | Aleph Beta

What Is Sabbath All About?

The Importance Of Shabbat In All Jewish Holidays

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In our Torah reading for holidays, we not only recite the laws of holidays, we include Shabbat, and oddest of all, some laws about sacrificing animals. What do all these laws have to do with one another? Shabbat and the holidays seem like separate phenomena, but... is the Bible trying to say something about the importance of Shabbat as it relates to other Jewish holidays?

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman makes a fascinating argument about how Shabbat works and shows that there are Shabbatot in different realms. Through this analysis, he uncovers what Shabbat is really about, and the importance of the Sabbath Day for understanding other Jewish holidays.


This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Emor.

This week's Parshat is home to the Jewish holidays Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and others. But we hear about them in very abbreviated forms, we really just get the dates on which these holidays appear and a very, very short smattering of laws. It does not seem specially enlightening; yet, I think if we look closer, there is a lot lurking here underneath the surface.

Let's jump in here with little thought experiment.

Clues to the Importance of Shabbat in Jewish Holidays

Imagine that you were in charge of coming up with a good Torah reading for Sukkot or the Passover and you've decided 'hey, why don't we use this section from Parshat Emor here, this listing of the holidays'. What starting verse would you pick? How about chapter 23 vs 4? It begins with a nice introduction: Eleh mo'adei Hashem mikra'ei kodesh asher-tikre'u otam bemo'adam, "these are the holidays of God, the appointed times", and then we get the first holiday, Pesach laHashem – we have the Passover holiday. But that's not actually where we start reading; we actually start reading earlier than this.

Well, where do we begin?

Right before this we actually have a mention of Shabbat, so maybe we should start there.

No it is a little bit strange to start there, after all, if we're reading the Torah or the festival, we might want to start with one of the yearly festivals. Shabbat is not a yearly festival, it's a weekly holiday but we could probably live with that. Maybe we could start there. As it happens, that's not where synagogues around the world start reading on the festivals, we start much earlier on something that has nothing to do with the festival, something that has nothing to do with Shabbat but is a law seemingly from left field, about a certain regulation having to do with animal offering; that's where we begin! Here is the law.

Chapter 22 vs 27: Shor o-chesev o-ez, " an Ox, Sheep , a Goat," ki yivaled, " when it's born" vehayah shiv'at yamim tachat imo, "should stay for seven days with its mother" umiyom hashmini, "and only from the 8th day forward could you offer it as an offering". This is actually where we begin reading the Torah on holidays. Why start here? This choice of a starting place seems to indicate that even though these laws seems to be very, very different than the laws of the holidays, perhaps in some deeper level, they is an essential similarity that's eluding us. What could that be?

So I would like to suggest a theory to you. The theory is based upon a pattern. If you actually really look at this sparse listing, with really just the dates and you ask yourself "what's going on here? Why is this meaningful? I'm just getting a listing of dates?" The patterns in the dates might be a key to it's meaning.

What Is the Bible Saying About Shabbat?

There are number patterns here. Read the dates. What number patterns emerge? The pattern in a nutshell is 'sevens and ones'. Sabbath: uvayom hashvi'I Shabbat shabbaton, "on the seventh day you declared a Sabbath", kol-melachah lo taasu, " don't do work on the Sabbath".

Immediately following that we have Pesach; when's Pesach? Bachodesh harishon, "the first month". When? Multiples of seven. Bearba'ah asar lachodesh, "on the fourteenth day of the month" and uvachamishah asar yom lachodesh hazeh, "on the fifteenth day, one day after that," chag hamatzot laHashem, "the new holiday, the festival of matzot begins;" and how long does it lasts? Shivat yamim, "seven days." Ahh! And on those seven days, any special days? Yes! Bayom harishon mikra-kodesh, " the first day is holy." Don't do any malachah. Bring offerings, shivat yamim, "for the following seven days" and bayom hashevi'I mikra-kodesh, "on the seventh day don't do any malachah." The first and the seventh days are holy and then sevens and the ones continue.

Following this, we have the Omer offering, the offering that would allow you to eat from the new crop of wheat, you bring it after the first day of Pesach and then you would count sheva shabbatot, "seven weeks." And once you got to your seven weeks, ad mimochorat hashabbat hashvi'it tisperu chamishim yom, "the day after the seventh of the seventh week would be a new holiday." That would be the holiday that we know as Shavuot. After that, what's the next holiday we meet? Rosh Hashanah. But it's not called Rosh Hashanah here, it's called a shabbaton, "a Sabbath event". When does it take place? Bachodesh hashevi'I b'echad lachodesh, "on the seventh month on the first day of that month". These patterns keep on repeating; it's almost like suddenly we're locked into this base seven system with only two numbers in it – ones and sevens, ones and sevens – and everything is a function of these ones and sevens. Why do these numbers get repeated so much? What's going on?

The Importance of the Shabbat Paradigm

So I would like to suggest a theory to you and the theory is this: the reason why the Torah introduces this section on moadim with Shabbat is because Shabbat is the paradigm. In a way all of these festivals are just iterations of Shabbat; they are kinds of Sabbaths.

The Sabbath, the prototype event exists in the weekly cycle; what the Sabbath is to the week these weekly holidays are to the year. The Sabbath occurs every seventh day, these other holidays have their seventh flitting in and out of their dates. They are Sabbath like events; it's almost like there is a solar system of Sabbath events. In the same way that planets all revolve around the sun but there are different arcs; some are farther out, some take longer to go around the sun, it's almost like Sabbath is the sun and everything goes around it – some take longer, some take shorter. There are different kinds of Sabbath events. One expression of Shabbat is in the week, is in the larger arc of the moadim, the other festivals, those are Sabbath like events whose orbit is in a yearly row. As we get to next week's Parshat, we may even see longer arcs; a Sabbath not just in the yearly cycle but in the cycle of years.

If this theory is true, the challenge that will face us is going through the lists of moadim and trying to discern how they are Sabbath like events.

Why Is the Sabbath so Important?

Perhaps the first clue comes from where we start reading the Torah on these holidays. Let's go back to those laws having to do with the slaughter of animals and how we offer offerings.

Shor o-chesev o-ez ki yivaled, "An Ox, a Sheep or a Goat when it is born," vehayah shiv'at yamim tachat imo, "it shoulds be with it's mother for seven days and then one day after that, it can be offered as an offering". Sevens and ones there too. Maybe in a way, this section of moadim begins even before moadim. Maybe the Sabbath begins even before we get any holidays. Maybe there are Sabbaths that are expressing themselves with these laws having to do with the animals. What exactly could that mean?

Well, let's go back to the core concept of the Sabbath for a moment. If we understand the essential Sabbath, the most basic one, we may be able to understand the other orbits, the other iterations of this holiday too.

God created the earth and then he created human beings; people, who like God posses the power of creativity, that like God, could take thing and mold them to suite their will, to understand that on the seventh day he rested, he allowed the world to just be – he didn't fiddle with it anymore and he commanded human beings to rest too.

Yes, you can use your creativity to dominate the world but you should let the world be like I did; you should rest on the seventh day too. Did you ever wonder why it is that an all powerful creator would need to rest after creating a universe? How hard would it have been to create a universe? But it wasn't about resting from labor. It wasn't about taking a breather so you can carry the next load up the hill. NO. It's a kind of rest that even an all powerful creator needs to rest.

It's letting go of the impulse to create. It's letting the thing that you've created just be and letting yourself just be. And then establishing that relationship between these two beings; you and what you've created. That's what the Sabbath is about.

What the Sabbath Day Is Really About

Even an all powerful creator needs to engage in that kind of rest. You as creator needs to engage in that kind of rest. And what you've created needs you to engage in that kind of rest because as long as you are fiddling with what you've created, it's not separate from you yet. It's not really done. Paradoxically, the final stage in creation is letting go.

Ever met the artist that's never done with their painting? That always wants to add on curly cue? Ever met the parent that even as they are walking their child down to the chuppah to get married, they're still changing them and they never let go. At some point, you have to let go. You just have to say – 'what they are is what they are'. And I'm relating to you now.

But in the mean time, let's look at these laws of the animals. Seven days a calf needs to be with its mother. You want to offer an offering to your creator? You have to understand there is another creator. What about the mother calf? She just had a baby. Let her be with her calf for seven days. Let the baby come into the world. Let the mother establish a relationship with it and the calf achieves some independence and the mother can let go. There is a Sabbath in the animal world that you need to honor.

Now, all this raises an interesting question, which is that, when we go forward in this Parsha and we listen to the moadim, the festivals, and we say that they are Shabbat experiences too, in what sense is that so? If men rest with respect to the inanimate world, by desisting from technology in the weekly Shabbat, if he honors the Sabbath in the animal world through these laws of the mother and the calf, in what other realm must he honor Shabbat? We'll come back next week and try to explore that very question.

Hey! It's Rabbi David Fohrman one more time. Please leave us comments, we always love reading them. I really hope you enjoyed the video; have a Shabbat Shalom!

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