These two talmudic texts are really two sides of the same coin. Shabbat is often called yesod ha-emuna (the foundation of our faith). The Bible repeatedly refers to it as an eternal sign of the covenant between God and the people Israel, weekly proclaiming both the Divine authorship of all Creation and the exodus from Egypt. One can readily understand the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Nedarim's claim that Scripture values Shabbat as much as all the other mitzvot combined. The weekly observance of Shabbat is the Jewish equivalent of the Catholic catechism: rather than declaring our faith in words, we Jews declare our faith in God as Creator and Redeemer by fully keeping Shabbat each week.
It is a bit harder to understand the point behind the text from the Babylonian Talmud tractate Hulin. We can understand why it is important to leave the door open to sinners to repent, to do teshuvah. We also can accept that some behaviors cross a line that the community cannot tolerate and some must be penalized by remaining on the other side of that door. Idolatry is clearly intolerable—we simply do not accept worshippers of foreign gods in our communities. Yet, placing those who publicly violate Shabbat on the other side of the line seems odd to us: should we not be accepting of their attempts to do good and include them fully in our communities?
Hulin's answer is no. This text takes seriously the idea that observing Shabbat is a physical declaration of faith in God. For this text, publicly desecrating Shabbat is the same as publicly rejecting and cursing the God of Israel, the same as committing oneself to idolatry and pouring libations to false gods. But here, then, is the flipside of the coin: observing Shabbat is also a way of building faith. When we struggle with our ideas of God, we can still come home to our foundation of faith each week, as the Divine shelter of peace spreads over us for the twenty-five hours of Shabbat.
Over the next year in this space, I will be focusing on selections from the Talmud taken primarily from tractate Shabbat. I hope this will be a faith enhancing experience for us all.
1. How do our actions declare our faith in our daily lives?
2. How can we best use Shabbat today to construct positive, life-affirming faith?