The Significance of the Sabbath: Bringing God into Space and Time | Aleph Beta

God In Space, God In Time

The Significance Of Keeping The Sabbath

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

What is the real significance of the Sabbath Day? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman examines a description the Bible gives of the Sabbath and asks: What does it mean to bring God into this world through space and through time? How are we supposed to "make" Shabbat, as instructed in the Bible?

Join Rabbi Fohrman as he examines the term "melacha" and explains that time and space are the two realms in which we explore our connection with God. Through this analysis, we learn how God exists outside of time and space, and why the Sabbath is significant - because it's the day we bring God into our world.


This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei. You are watching Aleph Beta.

This week I want to talk to you about a verse that many of you know very well, it's a verse that actually comes from last week's Parsha, but it's part of the Kiddush prayer which we make on a Sabbath afternoon as a way of sanctifying the Sabbath.

What Is the Significance of "Making" the Sabbath?

The verse is very, very familiar, but its meaning, I think, is very strange once you actually start to think about it. Here's how the verse goes.

Veshamru benei yisrael et HaShabbat, la'asot et HaShabbat l'dorotom brit olam.

Now there it is in Hebrew, it's considerably more difficult to translate the words in English. Veshamru benei yisrael et HaShabbat – that's pretty easy, the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, they shall observe the Sabbath. Now here's where it gets hard; La'asot et HaShabbat – to do the Sabbath or to make the Sabbath. L'dorotom brit olam – for generations, forever. What does that even mean? You should guard the Sabbath to make the Sabbath? It's just almost a non-sequitur. If you just said, you should guard the Sabbath, make sure that you don't transgress any of its laws, so I would understand what that means, you shouldn't do any prohibited labor on the Sabbath. But what does it mean to guard in order to make the Sabbath?

I guess in modern hip language you say, hey, do you do Sabbath? But we don't think, like ‘doing Sabbath,’ as ‘making Sabbath,’ in a literal kind of way. The Sabbath isn't something that you make, the Sabbath is there, it's a point in time. Your job is just to make sure that you don't transgress any of its laws, so you keep the Sabbath. You make the Sabbath and you make it by guarding it? What does that even mean?

Okay, so I think we can get some insight into this question if we sort of pull back the zoom lens for a moment and focus on the entire second half of the Book of Exodus and its structure. This week's Parsha brings to a close the Book of Exodus, so it's a good time to stand back and ask what it is we've been reading all these past weeks?

In Search of the Sabbath's Significance in the Bible

In looking at the second half of the Book of Exodus, here's the structure that seems to emerge. I mentioned it briefly last year in our Parsha video on Pekudei. There's a chiasm here, an ATBASH structure. First element mirrors the last element. The second to first mirrors second to last. Third to first, third to last. All converging towards a kind of center. Now we've talked about chiasms before, we talked about one in last week's Parsha that spanned just about five or six verses. This chiasm spans hundreds and hundreds of verses, it's huge, it's fascinatingly elegant, it has about 250 pieces to it. For those of you who want to look at this chiasm in great, great detail, I refer you to a series on this website on the Golden Calf and its aftermath. The last three lectures of that series are devoted to an exploration of this chiasm. But let me just give you some of its basic ideas and then I want to examine its implications with you.

Okay so here's kind of a simplified look at the chiasm. If you go to the very end of Parshat Mishpatim, just kind of at the halfway mark, more or less, in the Book of Exodus. You find a story about God coming down in a cloud, and revealing Himself to Moses and the people of Israel. The cloud is at the top of Mount Sinai and it covers the mountain. Next, we launch right into Parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh, and that's all about the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The laws of the Tabernacle take us all the way through the middle of Chapter 31 in Exodus, where all of a sudden we get this little interlude about the Sabbath. That's where the verses I was just talking to you about came from. And right after this, we get the disastrous episode of the Golden Calf.

Now the Golden Calf and its aftermath takes up the balance of Parshat Ki Tisa. Coming out of that what do you have at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel? You have the Sabbath once again at the beginning of Chapter 35. After the Sabbath almost the rest of our entire Parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei, is devoted to the actual construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Laws for the construction came earlier in Terumah-Tetzaveh, now the actual construction comes in Vayakhel Pekudei. Finally, at the very end of Pekudei, this week's Parsha, we get a little section about the cloud once more, but this time there's a cloud of revelation that's not on top of the mountain, but down below covering the Tabernacle.

Okay, so there you have it, pretty much a chiasm. The center seems to be the Golden Calf, radiating out from that Sabbath, Mishkan, cloud on either side. So now the question is okay, great, so there's this chiastic structure here, this ATBASH pattern, but what, if anything, does it mean?

I think that if we get the answer to that question right it will actually give us some insight as to what the entire second half of Shmot is really all about. The chiasm spans the entire second half of Shmot, it might be telling us something about the theme of this vast section of Biblical text.

Think about what these elements are about. The cloud of revelation, it's about God coming out of His world wherever that is and coming into our world. Think about the Mishkan – the Mishkan is really about that, God gives the Ten Commandments on these two tablets, but the centerpiece of the Mishkan is those two tablets, when they get put in the Aron, in the Holy of Holies. The Mishkan is about building a place for God's presence, making a place for God in the world.

Now skipping Sabbath for a moment, going to the Golden Calf, we might say the Golden Calf is the anti-version of all of this, it's an unsuccessful attempt to bring God into the world in a way that He did not command. The people thought that Moses' encounter with God at the top of Sinai had ended in failure, that Moses was dead, and therefore, in panic, they tried to create a vehicle for revelation in their own way. This indeed is how the Ramban – Nachmanides – understands the whole episode. So the Golden Calf represents a failure to bring God into the world.

Now the only other real element left within this chiasm, in terms of the large major themes of it, is Sabbath, leading us to wonder whether that's what Sabbath is about too? Is Sabbath about bringing God into the world, and if so, how exactly does Sabbath relate to Mishkan?

God Exists Outside of Time and Space

So here I want to reference a beautiful little book on the Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel entitled simply "The Sabbath," and his central thesis of the book is that the Sabbath is a place for God. It's a place for God in time. Essentially his argument is that what the Mishkan is to space, the Sabbath is to time. God has a special place in both of these realms, neither of which is native, so to speak, for God. God does not need space, God does not need time, these are constructions of God for the express purpose of allowing human beings to exist. But after having created the world, God wants a little summer home here, so God would like a place for Himself in space and in time.

You see it actually at the very, very beginning of the Torah. After the six days of the creation of the universe there's a seventh day, a day that God takes for Himself. God sets aside that day, blesses it, rests in it. Think about rest as opposed to work, when you work you're doing, you're too busy to actually be there, when you rest you're there. God is there in the seventh day. What happens right after that seventh day that is God's? The next thing God does is He plants a garden, the Garden of Eden.

In the very beginning God had a place for Himself in time, and God had a place for Himself in space. We were ultimately exiled from the Garden, we couldn't be there with Him anymore after eating from the tree of knowledge but since then, the mandate given to us has become clear: “recreate this for Me. In the beginning I made this for Myself; a place in space, a place in time, now you make it for Me. You create a place in space – a Mishkan, and you create a place in time, the Sabbath.”

Now here's the fascinating thing to consider, how do you build the Mishkan? You build it through the process of melacha, creative labor. That's the word the Torah uses to describe the construction of the Mishkan, but it's also the word that the Torah uses to describe what we must desist from on the Sabbath. To guard the Sabbath means NOT to do melacha, which leads to a mind boggling conclusion. Let's go back to that puzzling verse.

How Man "Makes" the Sabbath

Veshamru benei yisrael et HaShabbat – Israel must observe the Sabbath, must keep the Sabbath, by staying away from melacha. To what end? What happens when you do that? La'asot et HaShabbat – it creates the Sabbath. The Sabbath just isn't a static thing in time, it's a day of rest, it only happens when you rest, rest is what creates it. If engaging in melacha is the way that you build the Mishkan, disengaging from melacha is the way that you build Sabbath. It's the way you make Sabbath. Sabbath is something you make by observing it.

Now I want to probe just a little bit farther with you and ask, why should it be this way? If Sabbath is to time what the Mikdash, the Mishkan, is to space, why is it that the way you build in space is the mirror image of the way you build in time? Why the inverse relationship between these two?

Here's a wild theory. Maybe it has to do with the nature of time and space themselves.

Understanding the Significance of Keeping Shabbat

As it turns out something we've learned in just the last hundred years or so, is that time and space themselves have a fascinating inverse kind of relationship to one another. Einstein's famous theory of special relativity talks about the relationship between time and space and tells us some counterintuitive things about them, mind-bending things. One of the things it tells us is this, the faster you go through space the slower you go through time. As you go in motion through space the faster you go, the closer you get to the speed of light, the slower you go in time. Time actually slows down for you.

As crazy as this sounds, this hypothesis has actually been tested and found to be true. Two clocks, two incredibly precise atomic clocks were taken, one left on the ground, the other put in a 747 and flown for hours and hours, making an entire trip around the world. When the clocks were then again compared, the one that was moving at just 500 miles an hour – just a small fraction of the speed of light – the one that was moving had actually slowed down relative to the other clock. Time had gone slower for it. In just a small, fractional way, but the faster you go the more this effect is felt.

Leading to what is sometimes called the twin paradox. For those science fiction fans out there, Orson Scott Card talks about this in his book Ender's Game. But the paradox actually comes from scientific writings, not science fiction writings. If you took a pair of twins and left one on the Earth and sent the other in a spaceship going really, really fast, approaching the speed of light, that ship could travel for 50 years, and by the time it arrived back on earth, the twin that was in the ship would have aged just days, while its twin would be 50 years older.

The faster you go through space, the slower you go through time. Movement through space is the inverse of movement through time. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that the way you build in space is by engaging in melacha and the way you build in time is by refraining from it.

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