Rediscovering the Soul-Breath of the Sabbath

While it is true that many translations of the Bible such as the New Revised Version Standard (NRSV), the King James’ Version (KJV) and others render the verb וַיִּשְׁבֹּת (wayyišböt) as “rested,” a more accurate translation is “ceased,” i.e., “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because He ceased from all His work which God created to make” (Gen. 2:2). Ramban (12th century) interprets these words to mean “He ceased performing all His creative work.” Hence, for God, the Shabbat is really more a day of “ceasing,” rather than “resting,” as commonly believed.

But why does God need to abstain from producing new creative work? Obviously it is not because of tiredness! As theologian John Shea notes, a story about God is really a model for how we are to conduct our lives. God’s “ceasing” from Creation thus provides us with a template for emulating God’s behavior. As human beings created in the image of God, we too need to make time for rest and purposely abstain from interfering with Creation one day of the week. The passion to create can sometimes be dangerous—especially in a highly technological society that prides itself on its ability to create, manipulate and control the world around it. In our modern world, we often tend to think of ourselves as being completely self-sufficient.

There’s a great story I would like to share with you from Mrs. Lettie Cowman’s wonderful book, “Springs in the Valley.” In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

Then Mrs. Cowman concludes with this penetrating exhortation: “This whirling rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor jungle tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”

It is incredible to realize that Lettie Cowman wrote these words eighty-five years ago.

Later in the Book of Exodus we read: בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested” (Exod. 31:17).

Consider the following: The Hebrew verb וַיִּנָּפַשׁ (wayyinnäpaš)  in Exodus 31:17  can sometimes mean “rest,” “ensouled,” “breath,” and  “to catch one’s breath.”  It often points to the inner being of a person. Hence, a nefesh can also mean a living being. In the context of Shabbat, God ensouled this day when He rested with a dimension of His Presence, which the Kabbalists interestingly enough identified as feminine! The Sabbath reveals the reality of the Divine Feminine better known as the “Shekhinah.”

Why did God need to rest on the Shabbat day? Was He tired from creating the world? Hardly. Maybe it’s because the Sages wished to teach us that work is not an end in and of itself. To be healthy, to be free from the problems of earning a livelihood, we must have Shabbat as a day to renew our strength and spirits. Like the natives of Mrs. Cowman’s stories, we must have time to renew our spirits, to catch our breath and to become a living being once more. On Shabbat, God created the possibility of renewal, which, in turn, is one of the fundamental teachings of our faith.

The concept of the Shabbat is radical in many respects. For hundreds of years Jews, the ancient Greeks and Romans ridiculed the Jews for being lazy for resting on the Shabbat day. Yet, paradoxically, the Sabbath is perhaps one of ancient Israel’s greatest gifts to human history. While the Babylonians produced the ziggurats, and the Egyptians built the pyramids (No, the Israelites did not build the pyramids!), the Israelites introduced the concept of “holiness of time.”

The concept of rest is not just to members of the human family, the Ten Commandments insists that even animals rest on the Sabbath—how much more so should every person, whether Jew or Gentile! [1] In biblical psychology, even the earth itself possesses  a sentience just like human beings (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22; 25:2). In short, contrary to the view espoused by the behaviorists and the philosophers of positivism, man is infinitely more than a complex biological machine. According to Pharaoh, the Israelites were nothing more than animated tools, not much different from the bricks his slaves gathered. For Pharaoh, human beings live to produce–and nothing more.

When we take the soul out of the Sabbath, humankind risks transforming nature herself into an “It”—an inanimate machine. The precise eco-system is analogous to a spider’s web; every fragment of nature is interconnected. Is nature alive? If you read the Psalms, there is no question that every force of nature consciously serves God in ways that we will never fully fathom. All of Creation is alive and animated by its earthly song to her Maker. Each of us has a nefesh–a soul-breath that renews our lives daily; on the Sabbath, we acknowledge that we are not machines. Shabbat comes to teach us that each of us needs create the sacred space and time within our homes to enjoy the Sabbath with our families and friends. Put in different words, Shabbat is definitely eco-friendly!

Shabbat provides the sacred time to feel one with our Creator and Friend. The Shabbat Queen has come to provide our tired spirits with nurturing and healing. Shabbat provides us with the time to enjoy the world in silence and respect. Our work isn’t required to keep it going. Jewish mystical tradition encourages us to recite Psalm 23 as a spiritual narrative about our weekday and Sabbath lives.

Shabbat Shalom: a “Shabbat of peace.” The word shalom means peace. What kind of peace? How do we attain it? Well, to begin with, peace begins with peace of mind. Peace with ourselves, peace with our health, peace with our wealth—all of these qualities will help us find fulfillment and satisfaction. Shalom also means “wholeness.” “Shabbat Shalom”  is thus  a divine imperative to rediscover the aspect of shalom and wholeness in our turbulent lives.



[1] One of the grand mistakes rabbinic Judaism made in Late Antiquity was the belief that the Sabbath should remain only Israel’s heritage and that gentiles were forbidden to observe it.  Maimonides does not appear to have theologically endorsed the rabbinic notion that Gentiles are forbidden to observe the Sabbath. On the contrary, the observance of the Sabbath will “confirm thereby the principle of Creation which will spread in the world, when all peoples would eventually keep Sabbath on the same day” (Guide 2:31). The biblical passage in Isaiah 56:2-7 definitely substantiates Maimonides’ contrarian view (and we definitely like contrarian perspectives, don’t we?). It is most unfortunate that the Sages overlooked this passage. It would seem that the early Christian transformation of the Sabbath from a Saturday to a Sunday probably contributed this  rabbinic re-interpretation of the Sabbath as being solely “Israel’s heritage,” since the Early Church Fathers distorted the Sabbath.

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