Shabbat: Why Do We Rest? | Aleph Beta

Why Is Rest on the Seventh Day So Important?

Shabbat: Why Do We Rest?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We celebrate the Sabbath through rest, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, but this raises a few questions. First, why would an omnipotent God even need rest? Even if He did create the universe – He’s infinitely powerful! Second, why do we celebrate Shabbat by copying God’s rest day, not the mind-blowing six days of creation before it? What did God do on His day of rest that was so incredible?

Looking closer at the Biblical text, we see clues that perhaps Shabbat doesn’t commemorate the creation of the world – at all. God only blessed and sanctified the seventh day – His day of blissful rest – and not the creation of the universe in the days before.

This is the one insight in the Torah and the Bible of God’s own experience of what He did on the seventh day – He was so excited about this day of rest, that He declared it as a holy day.

But what’s the big deal about rest? Is that the incredible thing we are going to celebrate, after the huge creation of the world?

In this Shabbat course, Rabbi Fohrman asks some fundamental questions to uncover a deeper meaning to why we rest on the Sabbath. After all, what’s so important about rest that we commemorate it once a week, thousands of years later – more than the creation of the whole universe? Figuring that out, Rabbi Fohrman argues, will help us understand the true meaning of why rest on the Sabbath is still important today.


Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. What you’re about to watch is part of a larger series I recorded a while ago called ‘Genesis Unveiled.’ It explores the themes in the first twelve chapters of Genesis, and to tell the truth, is one of my favorites on Aleph Beta – and I do hope that one day you get to watch the whole thing. But as part of that course, I spoke about the idea of the Sabbath, and we’ve excerpted that section of the course for you to enjoy here.

The Sabbath is a mainstay of our faith. Next to eating kosher, it is probably the most prominent way in which Judaism, or the Torah as a whole, regularly intersects our lives. It is, in fact, the only ‘ritual,’ so to speak, aspect of Judaism included in the Ten Commandments. And yet, why this day is so very important is not entirely clear. What, really, are we supposed to get out of observing it? How is it meant to transform our lives?

These larger questions about the Sabbath are tied up, I think, with a number of… what I’ll call little ‘curiosities’ about the Sabbath. Those ‘curiosities,’ which we often gloss over, are not just niggling difficulties; they are windows into deeper meaning. And these are the kinds of questions this course starts with.

So… here’s the course. I really hope you enjoy it. 

So, let's begin with some questions on the idea of the Sabbath as it is portrayed in the Biblical text. I just want you to kind of lay back and imagine: If you have never heard of this idea of the Sabbath and there was this notion that – OK, let's say you accepted the Bible's portrait of things, that the world was created in six days by this omnipotent God, this all-powerful God, and then, there's this holiday. God takes off and celebrates this holiday. The holiday is the seventh day that God rested, and then forevermore, in the Torah and in the Bible, God commands His people that they are going to rest every seventh day like God rested when God finished creating the world. So, if you just think about that notion, there are some strange things about it. Here are some strange things.

Did an Omnipotent God Need Rest?

Idea number one is: Why would an infinitely powerful God really need to rest after creating the universe? You know, was God tired? I know that once I gave the analogy that if you fill the entire Grand Central Station with dust, our Earth would be one speck of dust – hardly one speck of dust – in the universe. But if you imagine, how difficult would it be for an infinitely powerful God to create such a thing, it wouldn't be difficult. You're infinitely powerful! So, does God really need to take a breather? Does God really need to rest after creating the universe? It just doesn't sound like something an all-powerful God needs to do. So why did God feel the need to take a break after six days? OK, so that would be question number one: Why would an infinitely powerful God need to rest after creating the universe? 

What other questions are there? What other questions do you have when thinking about the idea – the Biblical idea – of God taking a break and resting and having this day off after creating the universe, and then celebrating that day off?

What Does the Sabbath Actually Commemorate?

You play God for a moment. Let's say you created the universe in six days. All right? Let's say you wanted to make a holiday, that you're going to command these poor, mortal human beings you created that they're going to celebrate this holiday, and they are going to celebrate the idea of your creation. Right? You've created this universe; you want them to always remember that you are the Creator, you created the universe. They're going to have some sort of a holiday to celebrate that. How would you ask them to observe that holiday? Well, I don't know about you, but if I was playing God – if I wanted to celebrate my creating the universe – I would ask them to create something in commemoration of what I created. You know, everybody can be making these papier-mâché globes; once a week, everyone would make these papier-mâché globes. They would finish them and hold them up and say, 'Wow! We created this, and it's a symbolic representation of the whole earth, and yaay! Look at us!' And we'd all put them as a centerpiece on the tables; we'd eat this great feast. Something like that would be nice, would be inspiring, and no one would think this is crazy. Everyone would think this is a great idea.

But if you think about what we are doing instead, we are doing exactly the opposite of that. Instead of asking people to create something symbolic, we are asking people to rest. Why? Because God rested! Maybe that sounds normal because that's just the way we've come to understand what the Sabbath is, but it is kind of strange if you take it out of the theological context for a moment and make it an analogy from normal, everyday life.

Why Celebrate a Holiday by... Resting?

Let's say that we were a city council and we were all getting back together and we wanted to celebrate something like Rosa Parks Day – that day that Rosa Parks courageously resisted the racist policies of her time. She stood in front of the bus and sat there. We wanted to do something like that; we're all going to have a Rosa Parks Day. So, one day a week, one day a year, the city council says, 'Everyone's going to get together and do some sort of symbolic act to commemorate Rosa's heroic ride.' What would we do?

So, you can imagine the city council debate. People would say, 'Well, why don't we have everybody get on these buses and crowd on to these buses, crowd on to the front of the buses. No one is going to sit at the back of the buses, these buses careening all over the place, laden down with people on the front of the bus, and no one is sitting at the back of the bus. That's what we will do!' Make a lot of sense, you know? It wouldn't be so good for the buses, it would cause some traffic problems, but it would make sense as a way to commemorate Rosa Parks Day.

But imagine some guy at the back of the room, some guy over here, says, 'No, I have a great idea. Here's what we should do for Rosa Parks Day. Instead of having everybody stand up on these buses and stuff, we should actually have people go home and take naps!' Why should they take naps? Well, it turns out that after Rosa's historic ride, Rosa was very tired. Rosa went home and she actually took a nap. So we too should be like Rosa. Let's take naps because Rosa took naps after her ride! We would think this is crazy, this is insane. This makes absolutely no sense. But this actually wins the day, the nap wins the day. This is actually how Rosa Parks Day is celebrated. This is actually the Sabbath.

Celebrating God's Rest, Not Creation?

God, after creating the world – He went and took a nap, and so we should take naps. It seems insane! We're not celebrating the nap, we're celebrating the Creation. It just doesn't seem to make any sense. 

So the answer to this question, I think, is something equally astounding. I can give you an answer, but the answer is just every bit as astounding as the question. The answer is that, if we think about it carefully, if we look back at the Biblical text, the Sabbath actually does not commemorate God’s creating the world. The Sabbath commemorates something else.

Here is the text. Read it carefully. What does the Sabbath really commemorate? Well:

 וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-צְבָאָם – the world was finished, I’m reading now from Genesis chapter 2. The world was finished:

וַיְכַל אֱלֹקִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה –God finished on the seventh day, and He rested on the seventh day from everything that He had made. Now listen carefully:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ

– and God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it. And now you are about to get the reason. It’s going to give you the reason, the reason that God blessed that day and sanctified it:

  כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹקִים לַעֲשׂוֹת

– because on that day He rested. The reason why God treats this day so special is actually because God rested. God is actually commemorating His rest on the day, not actually the Creation.

What's So Important About Rest?

So what the Sabbath actually commemorates is not God's creation of the universe, interestingly enough, but God's rest. God Himself is commemorating His rest. But then the question is: Well, what's so important about rest that it should be commemorated? Who cares about rest? I would say it is theologically significant that God created the world. You want to have a holiday that God created the world, makes sense. But a holiday about God resting after creating the world? That's the incredible thing that we are celebrating? Why celebrate rest? It doesn't seem to make any sense. What is the big deal about rest?

That, I think, is the great question that we need to figure out to understand what's happening at the most basic of levels in the Sabbath. There are a couple of other questions which I want to entertain with you about the Sabbath. Let's come back and put them all together. I'll see you in our next video.

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