Tora Thoughts: Parashat Yitro 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
The parasha for this week, Yitro, includes the reading of the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment is the order to remember the seventh day of the week (Shabbat) and keep it holy. It is written in the Torah, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8). The question I want to ask here is: How can we keep Shabbat holy? Before giving an answer, let me add that, in biblical and rabbinical language, keeping or making something holy means to make it different from the ordinary.
As you may guess, there are many deep philosophical answers to the question on how to keep Shabbat holy. These answers deal with the nature of time and of human labor, and the relationship between God and the human being. However, as in many other cases, the sages of old wanted to have practical answers to the divine orders of the Torah. Regarding our question here, the sages gave a very concrete answer in the following midrash, “How can you keep the day of Shabbat holy? With a special meal and with clean clothes, so your Shabbat meal is not like your daily meals, and your Shabbat clothes are not like your daily clothes” (Mechilta Derabbi Shimon Bar Yochai 20:8).
This midrash states that the way to keep Shabbat holy is merely by having special meals and wearing clean (today we would probably add “nice”) clothes. Indeed, there are many other simple Jewish rules that help us to transform Shabbat into a different day, like lighting candles, having a joyous time together with relatives and friends, resting, introducing special prayers, etc.
The Torah order is somewhat hard to understand (“keep the Shabbat holy/different”) and the rabbis interpreted this commandment in simple terms (“have nice meals and wear clean clothes”). This type of interpretation of abstract or vague Torah precepts as very concrete kinds of actions is actually a general trend in the way our sages interpreted the Torah. The sages designed a way of living (the Jewish way of living) by interpreting the commandments of the Torah in concrete and simple terms. Why did they do that?
I believe the sages wanted to shape a way of putting God’s words in very simple terms, so that every person is able to fulfill them. Even when trying to understand God’s will is too hard for most of us, everybody can practice simple rituals/actions that help us to get closer to God’s intentions. For example, understanding the nature of light and heat, and how our souls and our intellects can be compared to the fire, is not necessarily something people think about spontaneously. However, it is naturally easy to feel good when we light the Shabbat candles. Even a toddler can understand that something different and nice is happening.
The same thing happens with many other mitzvot from the Torah: While they could have been interpreted only in philosophical or mystical terms, they were translated into simple actions by our sages. This way, the Jewish tradition acquired a very concrete and simple way of practicing its principles and putting its values into action.
Study in depth and interpretation in its many facets is highly encouraged in Judaism, but not everyone is expected to achieve high levels of understanding. Instead, everybody can access and practice the Jewish rituals and customs, that help us to build a beautiful frame for our lives. Everybody!