The Deeper Meaning of Shabbat Morning Kiddush: Exodus 31 | Aleph Beta

A Closer Look At Kiddush

The Deeper Meaning Of Shabbat Morning Kiddush

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Kiddush we recite on the Saturday morning of Shabbat, what we recognize as Parshat Ti Kisa (Exodus 31:13–17), is seemingly boring and repetitive – but is this a clue to a hidden meaning?

Exodus 31 explains why we should observe Shabbat, about its holiness, and why we keep this eternal covenant between God and his people. But over and over again, from verses 13 to 17, we see the same commentary repeated. When we read it aloud, it almost sounds as if we are repeating ourselves. Why did God repeat His message? How does this influence what Kiddush should mean to us?

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman takes a deeper inspection of the seemingly repetitious nature of Saturday Kiddush. By uncovering a chiastic structure in Exodus 31, he starts to connect the common themes. Watch this video to unlock a new meaning to the Shabbat morning Kiddush you thought you knew.

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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Ki Tisa. You are watching Aleph Beta.

Every once in a while you read through a Biblical text and you can't help the feeling that this is too repetitive. I mean, why am I listening to this? We’re saying the same thing over and over again. And maybe there is no greater example of this than a little section of text this which is actually quite famous in this week's parsha, the section of text that talks about Sabbath. The reason that it is famous is that we actually use it for the text of kiddush on Sabbath afternoon.

Seeing the Repetition in the Text of Saturday Kiddush

So you’ve kind of heard this over and over but if you ever actually bothered thinking about the words, you’d notice that it is just seems really, really repetitive. Let me give you an example, verse 13:

Ach et Shabtotai tishmoru - ,God says, 'Make sure to keep my Sabbaths,’ - ki ot hee beini uveinechem - 'because it is a sign between Me and you,' - ledoroteichem - ‘for generations’ - la-daat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem - ‘to teach you that I am the Lord who makes you holy.

Ushmartem et haShabbat - 'you must keep the Sabbath,' - kodesh hee lachem - it’s holy - mechaleleha mot yumat, ki kol ha-oseh vah melacha, venichreta hanefesh hahee mikerev ameha - 'those who desecrate the Sabbath, it's a capital crime.' Sheshet yamim ye-aseh melacha - ‘you should work for six days’ - uvayo hashvii Shabbat shabaton - 'and on the 7th day you should rest' - kodesh la-Hashem - ‘it's holy to God' - kol ha-oseh melacha bayom ha-Shabbat mot yumat - 'anybody who does work, it is a capital crime' -

Veshamru bnei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat - 'and Israel has to keep the Sabbath,' - Laasot et ha-Shabbat -  'to do the Sabbath,' - ledorotam brit olam - 'it's a covenant forever.’ Beni uvein bnei Yisrael - 'a covenant between Me and between Israel,' Ot hee le-olam - 'it's forever.' - ki sheshet yamim asa Hashem et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz - 'because it teaches that God made the world in six days and on the 7th day, He rested.'

And so you listen to this, and it’s like, everything just keeps on getting repeated. I mean, how many times do I have to hear this? It is a sign; between Me and you; it's for generations; you have to keep the Sabbath; it's holy. What's going on here?? Why is the Torah being so verbose?

Uncovering the Chiasm in Shabbat Morning Kiddush

So I want to suggest to you that whenever you come across a text like this, you need to consider the possibility that you might just be looking at a chiastic structure, Atbash structure, and I think that's what’s going on over here. I've talked about Atbash structure other times in these Parsha videos. A good introduction to it is given in last year's Parshat Vayeiravideo, you can take a look at that if you like. But basically Atbash is an ABC -CBA structure, a structure where the first element is mirrored by the last element. Second to first gets mirrored by second to last. Third to first gets mirrored by third to last until all the ideas in a passage are kind of converging towards the center.

A chiastic structure, an Atbash structure is interesting because it defines a center of a narrative, a kind of center of gravity around which all the ideas kind of coalesce. But it is also interesting in another respect. It is interesting because the pairs on the way towards the center kind of line up with each other. The first element pairs off with the last element, second to first pairs off with second to last. So there's meaning to be found in this similarity in contrast in the pairs. I want to explore this with you in what I think is a fascinating chiasm within this Sabbath text that we know so well.

First, I want to read through this and try to identify the structure itself, and then we will try to figure out what it might be telling us. Okay, let's start from verse 13, speak to the Israelites and tell them keep My Sabbath. We are going to see that as the introductory verse. Everything that happens next is going to explain that verse. Ki ot hee, 'because it is a sign.' Now look at the end of the text, can you find the idea “ot hee” again? Yup, there it is. Verse 17, ot hee le-leolam 'it's a sign forever.' Okay, so we are going to call element 1 in this chiasm “ot hee”, 'it's a sign.'

Let's go to element 2, who is it a sign between? Beni uveinecham, the top of the chiasm tells us. What about the bottom of the chiasm? Right before ot hee what do you have? Beni uvein bnei Yisrael, 'it's a sign between Me and the people of Israel.' So element 2, between Me and you, between Me and Israel.

Element 3, how long should the sign last? Ledoroteichem, 'for all of your generations.' Bottom of the chiasm now, ledorotam brit olam, 'for all of their generations,' a covenant forever. So element 3, 'forever.'

Let's go now to the bottom of the chiasm. What do we have before ot hee, before beni uvein bnei Yisrael before ledorotam brit olam? We have: Veshamru bnei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat, 'Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath.' Do we have anything like that at the top of the chiasm? We do – Ushmartem et ha-Shabbat, 'Keep the Sabbath.' So element 4, the command to keep the Sabbath.

Now I just want to point out that there seems to be a phrase here which is actually outside of the chiastic structure, that doesn't seem to fit. It's these words at the top of the chiasm: Ledaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem 'to know that I, the Lord, am the one who made you holy.' So that appears at the top over here, but it does not seem to really have an analog in the bottom of the chiasm. There's no room for anything that's parallel to ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchemמְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. So we will come back to that and talk about this phrase which seems to be dangling, that doesn't seem to be part of the structure.

But in the meantime, let's continue, we have four elements, can we find a 5th? And there does appear to be a 5th. Look at the top, ki kodesh hee lachem, 'the Sabbath is holy' and therefore, mechaleleha mot yumat; ki kol ha-oseh ba melacha, venichreta hanefesh hahee mikerev ameha,  'because the Sabbath is holy, it's a capital crime to violate it;anybody who violates it, his soul would be cut off from amongst his people.' Look at where that gets mirrored, at the bottom of the chiasm. Again the idea of holiness: Kodesh la-Hashem, 'the Sabbath is holy to God' and therefore the consequences for its violation, kol ha-oseh melacha beyom ha-Shabbat mot yumat, 'anybody who violates it, it's a capital crime.' That's element 5, holiness of the Sabbath and consequences for its violation.

And now, we get to the center, the 6th and final element. Oh, isn't that interesting? Sheshet yamim ye-aseh melacha, 'for six days you should do work,' the 6th element is the six days of creation. Including the center, there are six elements on each side of this chiastic structure. It is almost as if there is one for each day. But now, read carefully, the center is really a two part center. Sheshet yamim ye-aseh melacha, 'six days shall you do work,’ uvayom ha-shevii, 'but on the 7th day,' Shabat shabaton, 'it's a holy day,' a day of rest. The two parts of the center will take you from six to seven. The culmination of the chiasm: a six-part chiasm with the 7th part layered into the six.

So that's the structure. Let's talk a little bit about what meaning we might glen from the structure. Let's talk about all that seeming repetition we saw before. If you look carefully it's not quite repetition. It's different angle on same ideas. What sort of perspective we are getting in the first half of the chiasm? And how does it differ from the perspective that we are getting in the second half? Listen to the subtle change in the phraseology between the first and the second halves.

The Meaning of Exodus 31 Explained

In the first half, ot hee beni uveinechem, it's a sign between Me and you. In the second half, beini uvein bnei Yisrael, 'a sign between Me and the children of Israel,' what is the difference? The difference is we are going from second person to third person. The first part of the chiasm directed towards you. God is talking to you and in the next part of the chiasm, God is not talking to you, He is talking about you in third person. As if God is speaking about you but He is speaking to Himself.

Continue in the chiasm, you will see the same pattern continue to repeat itself. First part of the chiasm, how long should the sign last? It should last ledoroteichem, 'for all of your generations.' Second person, directly to you, God is speaking to you. Not so in the latter half of the chiasm. How long should it last? Ledorotam, 'for all of their generations.' Brit olam, 'a covenant forever.'

Notice how a covenant forever only appears in the bottom of the chiasm and not at the top of the chiasm. It’s almost as if almost the top of the chiasm is relating to Sabbath from the perspective of the people of Israel. God is speaking to them directly about it. What does it mean to you? It means to you that you are going to keep on doing this for all of your generations. We don't know from forever, we know about our generations. God knows about forever, God speaking about it from His own perspective, says yeah, it is going to be for all of their generations, timeless. God is the timeless one. God is the one who projects the Sabbath into infinity.

Keep on going to the 4th element, ushmartem et ha-Shabbat, 'you shall keep the Sabbath,' a direct command to you. On the other side of the chiasm, veshamru bnei Yisrael et ha-Shabbat, 'the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath.' Talking about you.

Go now to the 5th element of the chiasm. You see the pattern there again. What does Sabbath mean for the people of Israel? Kodesh hee lachem, 'it's holy, for you.' Contrast that to the bottom half of the chiasm. Kodesh la-Hashem, 'it's holy for God.' From God's perspective it is holy. There are two ways to relate to the holiness of Sabbath. If I relate to it in terms of its holy for me, well, there are consequences for that. The consequences for that is not just that it is a capital crime, venichreta hanefesh ha-hee mikerev ameha, if we are speaking about this from the perspective of the people of Israel, anyone who doesn't keep the Sabbath is cut off from the people of Israel. That's our perspective on all this. From God's perspective that's not there, that's absent. The kodesh la-Hashem piece, at the bottom of the chiasm leaves out mention of the spiritual excision of anyone who doesn't keep the Sabbath from the people of Israel.

And now, let's take a look at one last little piece of this which continues this pattern. It relates to the center of the chiasm itself. The interesting thing about the center of a chiasm is it doesn't have a pair. All the other elements get paired off, you can sort of see one element almost as commenting on the other, but there is nothing commenting on the center. The center is all alone, it doesn't have a pair, right? Not necessarily.

Sometimes when you look at chiastic structure, if you look carefully, you will find that the center actually does have a pair, as a matter of fact it has two pairs. Somewhere in the edges of chiasm there are two elements that pair off against the center. One at the top, one at the bottom. I think that's the case here. Those pairs are actually the missing pieces of the text that didn't fit into the original chiasm. The parts that don't fit, are the pairs to the center.

Top of the chiasm, ot hee beini uveinechem, it is a sign between me and you, for what purpose? Here is the purpose - and this was the part that was left out of the chiasm - ledorotam, ladaat ki ani Hashem mekadishchem, so that you should know that I am the God who makes you holy. Now go to the bottom of the chiasm, what was the purpose of the sign there? Beini uvein bnei Yisrael ot hee le-olam, it was a sign, for what purpose? Ki sheshet yamim asa Hashem et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz, that in six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the 7th, He rested.

Understanding the Chiastic Commentary of Exodus 31

The sign has two meanings. It has a meaning with reference to us and a meaning with reference to God. The top of the chiasm is all about us. What does the Sabbath mean for us? For us, it says that God made us a holy nation. God selected Israel to be a holy nation to Him. The Sabbath, the fact that Israel was chosen to keep the Sabbath is evidence of that. But the sign means something to God too. The sign of the Sabbath is a sign that says something about God. But at the bottom of the chiasm, in six days God made the heavens and the earths but on the 7th, He rested. He was the Master, the Master who created and the Master who rested.

Why do I say that these are the pairs that connect to the center? Think about the center, six days shall you do work but on the 7th day, you shall rest. The center is the command to work for six days and to rest on the 7th. How do you get that command, what's the rationale for that command? Or to put it another way, what does that command show?

That command is a sign. It shows two things, two things that must go together. One thing it shows, is that God has sanctified the people of Israel. The second thing it shows is that God is Master and Creator. When you put those two things together, you get a command addressed to Israel, to keep the Sabbath. If God had only sanctified Israel but didn't regard Himself as Master and Creator, there would be no command to work for six days and rest on the 7th. There will be no rational for it and likewise had God been Master and Creator but not sanctified a particular nation, then there would be no reason for any particular nation to keep the Sabbath. It's the conjunction of both of them that leads to a command to Israel to keep the Sabbath. A command that is evidence of the holiness of the nation and the uniqueness of the Master and Creator whose existence they testified to, every time they keep the Sabbath day.

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