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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The activity in the emergency room was overwhelming. An ambulance had just arrived with the victim of a terrible accident. A swarm of medical technicians brought in the stretcher, leaving the patient under the care a group of doctors.



The activity in the emergency room was overwhelming. An ambulance had just arrived with the victim of a terrible accident. A swarm of medical technicians brought in the stretcher, leaving the patient under the care a group of doctors. Each doctor immediately began working on a different limb of the injured man. Suddenly, a cardiologist noticed that the man was having heart trouble. He pushed away the other doctors, explaining that while their efforts were important, they could wait. The man's heart was essential for his survival. Were it to fail, all the other doctors' efforts would be futile.

In this week's Torah portion, we are told to: "Keep My Shabbat and revere My Temple. I am Hashem" (Leviticus 19:30) This verse heeds us to observe the mitzvah of Shabbat. However, this idea is not new to us. There are numerous places throughout the Torah 22 of them, in fact where we are told about and warned to observe Shabbat. Aside from these, many of the prophets warned the Jewish people of the importance of Shabbat. Why is Shabbat observance emphasized so strongly?

The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, answers that keeping Shabbat is equal to all the other mitzvot combined. The basis for the mitzvah of Shabbat is that when Hashem created the world, He created for six days and refrained from creating on the seventh. When we do the same with our workweek, we attest to the truth of this idea. Once we recognize this, we understand that there is a higher authority whose commandments must be followed. If a person does not demonstrate this, he denies Hashem's creation of the world. He lacks a fundamental Jewish belief. Because Shabbat involves such fundamental beliefs, the Torah keeps reiterating its importance.

The Chofetz Chaim, the foremost leader of Torah Jewry at the turn of the century, compared Shabbat to a craftsman's shingle. When a person sets up shop, he puts a sign up on his shop to let people know what kind of work he performs. Once this sign is erected, people know that he works there. Even if he isn't in the shop at the present moment, people see the shingle and realize that he has only left temporarily. However, once he takes down that sign, everyone sees that he is out of business and will not be returning to the store.

In the same way, Shabbat observance is the sign of a Jew. When a person keeps Shabbat, this is a sign of his fundamental belief. Even if this person sins, it is still evident that he has not left his faith entirely just as it is evident that the shop with a shingle has not permanently closed. However, if a person does not keep Shabbat, he has removed this symbol of his faith. He demonstrates that his inner beliefs have been uprooted.

The Torah gives us a prohibition to not perform any melachah (one of the 39 categories of work that were performed while building the Tabernacle) on Shabbat. The Sefer HaChinuch, a classic 13th century work describing the mitzvot, explains that one of the reasons for this prohibition is to give us time to focus on our faith. By not doing any melachah, we have time to honor the day in a proper fashion. Through giving Shabbat its proper attention, we will strengthen ourselves with a steadfast faith in Hashem and His creation. We just have to focus on why we are observing Shabbat to experience it.

Aside from the commandment not to perform a melachah, there is a higher level of Shabbat observance. In one of the Friday night zemirot (Shabbat songs) we sing, "Anyone who sanctifies Shabbat as is fitting, and anyone who guards Shabbat from being desecrated, receives great reward according to their actions." The Chofetz Chaim explains that there are two types of Shabbat observers. One who follows the exact laws, making sure not to defile the holy day. He "guards Shabbat from being desecrated"; that is all. The other observes Shabbat on an even higher level. He "sanctifies Shabbat as is fitting." Not only does he fulfill the minimum requirement not to desecrate, but he goes above and beyond that to enhance Shabbat, as is really appropriate for the holy day. Both of these people "receive great reward." However, that reward is "according to their actions." The reward given for the one who sanctifies Shabbat on this higher level is significantly greater than the reward given for the minimum level of observance. Even though a person fulfills the prohibition by not desecrating Shabbat, there is still much more that can be done to properly honor Shabbat.

While there are many laws pertaining to how one should act on Shabbat, it should not be viewed as a day of restrictions. Shabbat is a special time that Hashem gave as a gift to the Jewish people. The Talmud relates (Tractate Shabbat 10b) that Hashem told Moses that He had a special gift in his storehouse called Shabbat which He wanted to give to the Jewish people. He sent Moses to tell the nation about the gift. The Eitz Yosef, a classic commentator on the Talmud, asks why Moses had to tell them? They would have found out about the gift by themselves. The Eitz Yosef answers that they would have known about the day of rest. However, they never would have thought that they would also receive eternal reward for Shabbat, as with other mitzvot. It does not make logical sense that we should have a day to rest, eat, and drink, and get rewarded for doing so. Shabbat is like a paid vacation! We never would have thought that on our own, which is why Moses was sent to tell us about this wonderful gift from Hashem.

The cardiologist pushed the other doctors away from the ailing patient. While their work was important, it was not as crucial as the man's heart. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the same holds true of Shabbat. Shabbat is the heart of a Jew. Its observance encapsulates some of the most fundamental Jewish ideologies including belief in the creation itself. Because Shabbat is so important, it is crucial that one has a proper Shabbat observance as a foundation for the rest of one's Jewish beliefs. Even if one needs improvement in other areas, if one keeps Shabbat, one is on the right track. Withholding ourselves from performing melachah on Shabbat gives us the opportunity to focus on our belief in Hashem. However, we should strive not only to restrain from performing any melachah, but to go beyond that to honor Shabbat in the proper way with nice foods and clothes, words of Torah, and a diversion from regular weekday affairs. By enhancing our Shabbat experience we can feel and appreciate Shabbat as the gift it truly is, and reap great rewards both in this world and the next.


Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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