A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Mishpatim 5763
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18
February 1, 2003 29 Shevat 5763
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun
Why do we observe Shabbat rest? The most common response to this question is learned from last week's Torah portion: we rest on Shabbat, because God rested on Shabbat. Thus, Shabbat becomes a "remembrance of Creation." The law of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments highlights the connection between Shabbat and Creation:
"Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:9–11).
This powerful motivation for sanctifying the seventh day is certainly sufficient. Yet, we learn another rationale for resting on Shabbat from this week's parashah.
In Parashat Mishpatim, which is primarily concerned with civil and moral laws, the Torah teaches:
"Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed" (Exodus 23:12).
This verse is strikingly different from the presentation of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Here, Shabbat observance is part of ethical and humanitarian living. In the verses preceding this discussion of Shabbat, the Torah warns against subverting the rights of the needy (verse 6) and oppressing the stranger (verse 9). This theme of social justice and liberty from oppression is also linked with Shabbat in Moses' reiteration of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy:
"Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave... or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:13–15).
In this beautiful passage, Shabbat rest becomes a taste of the redemption from slavery in Egypt. Just as God saved us from the unrelenting toil of Egyptian servitude, we must create a society in which our servants and animals find rest from their labors.
So why do we rest on Shabbat? The Torah portions of this week and last illustrate the multifaceted nature of Jewish ritual. Shabbat observance evokes two important themes in Jewish theology: God's Creation and God's Salvation. In both cases, God's actions serve as a model for our own. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we express our faith in God as Creator. Six days a week, we engage in partnership with God as builders of the world around us. On Shabbat we rest and reflect on God's ultimate role as Architect of the Cosmos. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we also express our heritage as redeemed slaves. The experience of liberation from work and weekday burdens reminds us the importance of overcoming oppression in the world.
Therefore, as we recite the Kiddush every Friday night, we sanctify Shabbat as "reminders" of both Creation and the Exodus from Egypt:
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe, instilling in us the holiness of mitzvot, and cherishing us by granting us the holy Shabbat lovingly, gladly, a reminder of Creation. It is the first among our days of sacred assembly that recall the Exodus from Egypt...
May our Shabbat rest this week resonate with the echoes of Creation and Liberation. May we fashion our lives in the light of God's ways, creating a world enriched with holiness, justice and freedom.
Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun