Remembering the Sabbath, Commentary on Parshat Yitro

This week’s portion, Yitro, has the distinction of having the Aseret Hadibrot, the 10 Utterances, popularly known as the 10 Commandments.  The fourth utterance is, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Zachor et Yom Hashabbat lkadsho.”    What is the meaning of remember-zachor?  In what way could the children of Israel remember? Was not the Sabbath day new to them?

It is easy to make the assumption that the children of Israel received all the laws of the Torah at Sinai, but a careful reading of the Torah shows that in the case of Shabbat (as well as Passover), the children of Israel received the commandment prior of Shabbat prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  According to rabbinic tradition, Israel first receives the commandment of Shabbat three days after the splitting of the  Sea of Reeds (Ex 15:22).  After this stupendous miracle, the Moses pushes the Israelites on a three day journey in which they encounter no water.  Eventually they encounter bitter water at a place called Marah-bitter.  The people grumbled.  God empowers Moshe to do a miracle and the water is turned sweet.  It is at this moment that the Rabbis say that the children of Israel received the laws of Shabbat (see Rashi on Ex. 15:25) 

The Shabbat is given according to the rabbinic account as a response to Israel’s discontent.  In the next chapter of Exodus the Shabbat is given explicitly in the miracle of the Manna:  Moses explains, “Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath of the Lord.” (Ex 16:23).  The children of Israel collect two portions of manna on the sixth and refrain from gathering on the Sabbath day. The text testifies to their keeping the Sabbath day by refraining from gathering in the manna. 

This explains why God at the dramatic moment of Sinai says, “Zachor-remember the Sabbath day.”  It is because the children of Israel already had experience of doing the Sabbath before Sinai.   God did not want them to forget it or to think that the Sabbath day was insignificant. 

Last week in my Shabbat morning Dvar Torah I quoted a beautiful text from the Hasidic master, Mei Hashiloah (as brought by Avivah Zornberg).  He makes an lovely observation about the incident which according to the Rabbis led to Israel receiving the Sabbath.

“After their (Israel’s) great preoccupation (with the miracle) at the Red Sea, where they sang the Song…they travelled for three days, without God bestowing upon them any further revelation.  That is the meaning of, “They did not find water:” (Ex 15:22) they did not find any desire or delight, and they became dejected.” 

The Mei Hashiloah continues that in response to this dejection, God gives them Shabbat-which he explains as that at this low ebb time, without any great events or miracles is also a time of light and goodness of God.  For this teacher, the giving of Shabbat is  in response to this empty time is the ability of discovering delight without the drama of major events or interventions.  Thus when the Torah tells us that the bitter of waters of Marah became sweet, the message of the Torah is that Shabbat is a gift of God to us to sweeten our lives and to turn the bitter sweet. 

It is Jewish tradition that whenever during the week we find a particularly fine object or special food, we should put it aside for Shabbat.   This our sages understood as “remembering” the Shabbat”, the active gathering  of the sweet moments in our lives  to be set aside and savored for Shabbat. 

This then is the significance of the 4th Utterance in Exodus starting out with the word-Remember-Zachor the Sabbath day.  Israel is to remember the Sabbath day by making it a Taanug, a delight.  For us in 21st century America, it is important to remember the Sabbath.  Set aside this day to be with family and friends, share the delights of connection and community, of attentiveness and praise.  This is our precious gift that we should not forget.  Make it a delight!

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg


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