In the book of Exodus, there is a verse: “See that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath” (16:29). The Rabbis in the Talmud expanded this, saying: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have a good gift in my treasury, and it is called the Sabbath. I want to give it to the Jews. Please go and tell them.'”
One would imagine that such a gift would be treasured by its recipients and perhaps copied by others. As it happened, it took centuries until the rest of the world attempted to duplicate this idea, but when they did, far too many of the original gift’s heirs showed a preference for the pale imitation.
Although all of the world’s cultures have holidays and feast days, none has such a day that is as bound to the idea of rest as that originally bequeathed to the Jews. Nevertheless, the notion of a right to a weekly day of rest is now an almost-universally established phenomenon, which has been secularized in Christian countries as “the weekend.” It is so deeply rooted, in fact, that it has begun to breed offspring: two- and even three-day weekends.
Now that this institution is so widespread, perhaps we should be asking some basic questions: What is the purpose of these days of rest? How do people use them? Are they beneficial?
These questions are not meant to be frivolous or facetious. In developed societies, “extra” leisure time can create problems. Psychologists have long noted, for example, that most family quarrels and disputes – especially those serious enough to cause irreparable rifts – tend to occur during days “off.” Industrialists have approached this challenge pragmatically, creating a massive and ever-growing leisure industry. It seems that the first question on the mind of the person leaving for vacation is, “What am I going to do with my time?” The obvious answer, which would be “just rest,” is clearly unacceptable.
Instead, industry and government create amusement parks, organized trips, casinos, sporting events and shopping tours – complex ways (often involving great physical or mental exertion) for people to spend, or kill, their leisure time. As society develops, the need for such diversions multiplies…and more time is wasted.
Let us go back, then, to the original day of rest, the Sabbath, which God told us is such a marvelous gift.The value of this gift is not immediately apparent. Rather, it only reaches its full actualization when people actively concern themselves with adhering to its details.
When the Sabbath is treated as a weekend (with or without synagogue attendance), it feels like the secular weekend: too long, too boring, and too frequent. When the Sabbath is not distinguished from the weekdays – set apart as a special time with a special mindset – it is meaningless.
If we view the Sabbath candles as decorations, they will be superfluous; if we light the candles in an effort to welcome holiness, however, they will give off a special radiance. If we call up some friends to arrange the next golf outing, we will have just another weekend; if we can connect our shared conversation at our Sabbath table with holiness, however, we will experience oneg, the delight that our tradition extols. If we overload our day with too much food or too much empty chit-chat, we will gain nothing; but if we accept God’s invitation to share His day with Him and allow a bit of the world-to-come to waft into our world, we will treasure life with a feeling of wholeness and contentment.
The Sabbath is a very precious and fragile gift, which can only be appreciated if we unwrap it carefully and follow the instructions God provided for experiencing it. The environment and traditions of the Sabbath may take a nation many years to develop, yet they can be destroyed in a very short time. This rich and prized vintage must be kept in the right place and at the right temperature. When it is handled roughly, or mixed with Coke, it becomes worthless.
That is why our forebears had to be informed – in advance – that they were to receive a precious gift, so that they would treat it with the care it needed until they truly understood how valuable it was.