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Holy Chutzpah! The Rabbis and Shabbat Practice (Vayakhel-Pekudei 3/25/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanIf this week’s torah reading sounded familiar, then you were listening carefully!

Last week the Parsha started out with instructions to build The Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the desert, and this passage was then followed by instructions to guard the Shabbat as an eternal covenant between the Children of Israel and God.

This week the passages were nearly identical but their order was reversed: “And Moses gathered the whole congregation of the Children of Israel and said to them this is what you should do. Six days you should work, but the seventh day shall be Holy to you, a Sabbath to the Lord…”

This chapter is then immediately followed by directions to construct a Tabernacle: “And every wise person among you should do as God commands, construct the Tabernacle, and its coverings, its beams, etc…”

Why the repetition and reversal of order? Did Moshe forget how he wrote them a column ago?

Last Shabbat, the juxtaposition led us to an understanding of the importance of one day of cessation and contemplation. After a full week of productivity, even when we’re working for God (such as the construction of the Mishkan), we need to take time out for reflection and our own spiritual growth. The Tabernacle made a place for God in space, but the command of Shabbat tells us to desist and make a place for God in our heart, in our homes, in the dimension of time.

This week the reversal of the passages teaches us about the Sabbath in particular. The Torah tells us not to do any Melacha on Shabbat. Some interpret this to mean work, but the word for work is “Avodah”, Melacha, on the other hand, implies “creative activity.” Carrying one’s couch from the first floor in one’s house to the second floor and back down again on Shabbat would be permitted, for that’s not a creative activity, just labor.

What then is defined as creative activity? The Torah only tells us one activity in particular, לֹֽא־תְבַֽעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֽשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת, Don’t burn a fire on the Shabbat. But there’s has to be more to guarding the Shabbat than just not making fire, as the Torah commands us, “Don’t do Kol Melacha, all creative activity.”

From the juxtaposition of the passages, Shabbat following the construction of the Tabernacle, the rabbis concluded that what’s involved in building the Tabernacle is what must be forbidden on Shabbat. The monumental project though, took place 1400 years before the rabbis started formatting Shabbat. After much research and speculation, they concluded that 39 categories of creative activity were involved in the construction of the Mishkan. Actions such as cooking dies, cutting wood, weaving, writing, hunting and so forth became forbidden on the Sabbath.

The rabbis knew that there was little scriptural basis for these restrictions. They admitted that the Sabbath laws were like “a mountain being held up in the sky by a hair.” (Hagigah 1:8) But the juxtaposition of Shabbat to the construction of the tabernacle provided a worthy foundation from which to base these laws.

We can ask though, what about the one Sabbath prohibition that is mentioned explicitly in this week’s portion? It is forbidden to light any fire in our homes on the Sabbath day.

It would appear that the Torah wishes us to sit in the dark and cold on the Sabbath. This is precisely how the Karaites, a group that lived by a literal reading of scripture practiced the Sabbath. The rabbis of the Talmud though, were not interested in celebrating a dark and cold Sabbath; it was not in synch with their understanding of “calling the Shabbat a delight.”

Because of this, the rabbis interpreted “burning” as kindling. One may not kindle a fire on Shabbat, but a fire lit before Shabbat may remain burning. Therefore, in order to create an enjoyable environment in the home on the Sabbath, they commanded each household to light a fire. These candles symbolize the desire that the Sabbath should be filled with light and joy.

What is the blessing for lighting the candles? “Praised are You Lord our God King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath lights.” We thank God for commanding us to light these candles on the Sabbath. Here comes the knockout question though: Where did God command us to light the Sabbath lights? The Torah says just the opposite: “Do not burn a fire on the Sabbath.” It is only the rabbis who commanded us to kindle these lights!

This is one of the numerous examples of the holy chutzpah, the audacity of the rabbis. The rabbis felt that they had the authority to interpret the words of the Torah, according to the needs of the community of Israel, even if their interpretations contradicted the literal words of the Torah. Perhaps this is why learning Torah has such a priority in Judaism, for it’s not just another intellectual pursuit, it’s an act of the creation of Judaism itself.

It was the chutzpah, the tenacity of the rabbis that molded Judaism as they saw fit, even contradicting the Torah at times. This type of radical interpretation continues until this day as progress must never cease. The Jewish people themselves were called a “stiff necked people,” but it’s precisely our stubbornness that enabled us to survive 2000 years in exile and come back to rebuild our homeland.

Chutzpah can be a double-edged sword, but if used wisely, it will enable us to follow successfully in the footsteps of our ancestors and create a successful future as well.

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