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SIX OF ONE

by Rabbi Norman Schloss    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Veshamru - The Children of Israel shall observe Shabbat, to make the Shabbat an eternal (olam) covenant for generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever (l'olam) that in six days Hashem created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed" (Exodus 31:16-17).

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"Veshamru - The Children of Israel shall observe Shabbat, to make the Shabbat an eternal (olam) covenant for generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever (l'olam) that in six days Hashem created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed" (Exodus 31:16-17).

What does a person do if he is lost in the desert and loses track of time - how does such a person keep Shabbat? (This is not such an off-the-wall question. Unfortunately, prisoners in the former Soviet Union many times did not know what day of the week it was. This was done purposely by the authorities to try and break down their religious resolve.) The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 69b) discusses the issue and presents two opinions: Rav Hunah rules that the person should count six days and then keep the seventh day as Shabbat. Chiya bar Rav says that the person should keep that day as Shabbat and then count six days until observing the next Shabbat.

The difference in their opinions stems from two ways to look at the concept of Shabbat - does it precede or follow the work week of six days. Rav Hunah holds that the person in question should observe Shabbat as in the order of creation - six days and then Shabbat. Chiya bar Rav holds that Shabbat should be observed as Adam did. Adam was created Friday, kept the first Shabbat, and then counted six days until the next Shabbat.

This discussion seems to be hinted to in this week's Torah portion in the passage of Veshamru, quoted above and recited throughout our prayers every Shabbat: Friday night in synagogue, Shabbat day in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, and Shabbat day as part of Kiddush. The first words, "the Children of Israel shall observe Shabbat," seem to allude to the opinion of Chiya bar Rav, to keep Shabbat and then count six days, as Adam did. The last part, "in six days Hashem created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested," would support Rav Hunah, to count six days and then keep Shabbat. So we are left with the question - what does one do if he loses track of time and does not know when it is Shabbat?

The Vilna Gaon, the brilliant 18th century Torah scholar, gives us a beautiful insight into the words of the Torah. In the Veshamru passage, the Hebrew word "olam - forever" is written twice. The first time it appears in its complete form, with the Hebrew letters ayin, vav, lamed, mem. The second time it is written incomplete, without the letter vav. Says the Vilna Gaon, we know that there are no extra letters in the Torah, and no letters are left out by accident. Rather the Torah is hinting to something by this strange discrepancy.

Without the letter vav, the word "olam" can also be pronounced "eelaim - one who is lost". As a result, the verse can also be read that Shabbat "is a sign for one who is lost that in six days Hashem created heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested." The Torah itself gives us a hint with which we can answer our question. One who is lost must keep Shabbat in the order of Creation, like Rav Hunah said - count six days and then keep the seventh as Shabbat.

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Rabbi Norman Schloss writes from Atlanta.

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