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March 14, 2017 7:31 am

Is Shabbat the First Day or the Last?

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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A Torah scroll. Photo:

A Torah scroll. Photo:

In the immensely lengthy and detailed account of the making of the Tabernacle, the Torah tells the story twice: first via Divine instruction, and then by human implementation. In both cases, the construction of the building is juxtaposed with the observance of the Sabbath.

According to Jewish tradition, the juxtaposition was intended to establish that the Sabbath overrides the making of the Tabernacle. Not only is the seventh day a time when secular work ends, but it also brings rest from the holiest of labors: making a house for God.

At a more metaphysical level, the Sanctuary mirrors — i.e. is the human counterpart to — the Divine creation of the universe. Just as Divine creation culminated in the Sabbath, so too does human creation. The sanctity of place takes second position to the holiness of time.

However, there is one marked difference between God’s instruction of how to build the Tabernacle, and Moses’ instruction of how to do so. In the first case, the command of the Sabbath appears at the end, after the details of the construction. In the second, the command of the Sabbath appears at the beginning. Why so?

The Talmud raises the following question: What happens if you are far away from human habitation and you forget what day it is? How do you observe the Sabbath? The Talmud offers two answers:

R. Huna said: if one is traveling on a road or in the wilderness and does not know when it is the Sabbath, he must count six days [from the day he realizes he has forgotten] and observe one. R. Hiyya b. Rav said: he must observe one, and then count six [week] days. On what do they differ? One master holds that it is like the world’s creation. The other holds that it is like [the case of] Adam.

From God’s point of view, the Sabbath was the seventh day. From the point of view of the first human beings — who were created on the sixth day — the Sabbath was the first. The Tabernacle debate is about which perspective we should adopt.

When it comes to Divine creation, there is no gap between intention and execution. God spoke, and the world came into being. In relation to God, Isaiah says:

I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please. (Isaiah 46:10)

God knows in advance how things will turn out. Human beings cannot see the outcome. The “law of unintended consequences” tells us that revolutions rarely turn out as planned. Policies designed to help the poor may have the opposite effect. Hayek coined the phrase “the fatal conceit,” for what he saw as the almost inevitable failure of social engineering. Simply put, human behavior cannot be planned in advance.

So how do we deal with this reality?

One alternative is to simply let things happen as they will. This kind of resignation, however, is wholly out of keeping with the Judaic view of history. The Sages said: “Wherever you find the word vayehi [‘and it came to pass’] it is always a prelude to tragedy.” When things merely come to pass, they rarely have a happy ending.

The other solution — unique, as far as I know, to Judaism — is to reveal the end at the beginning. That is the meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not simply a day of rest. It is an anticipation of the Messianic age, when we recover the lost harmonies of the Garden of Eden.

On the Sabbath, we do not strive to do; we are simply content to be. We are not permitted to manipulate the world; instead, we celebrate it as God’s supreme work of art. On Shabbat, we are not allowed to exercise power or dominance over other human beings, nor even domestic animals. Rich and poor inhabit the Sabbath alike, with equal dignity and freedom.

No utopia has ever been realized, with one exception: “the world to come.” Why? Because we rehearse it every week — on the Sabbath.

We now begin to sense the full meaning of the making of the Tabernacle. In the wilderness, long before they crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land, God told the Israelites to build a miniature universe. It would be a place of carefully calibrated order, just as the Tabernacle had to be exact in its construction and dimensions. The building of the Tabernacle was a symbolic prototype for the building of a just society.

The ultimate end of such a society is the harmony of existence that we have not yet experienced. God, however, wanted us to know what we were aiming for, so that we would not lose our way in the wilderness of time.

That is why, when it came to the human construction of the Tabernacle, the Sabbath came first. Only those who know where they are going will get there — however long it takes.

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