Why Would A God Need
to Rest on the Seventh Day?
By Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel
While it is true that many translations of the Bible
such as the New Revised Version Standard (NRSV), the King
James' Version (KJV) and others render the word Shavat as
"rested" a more accurate translation of Shavat is
"abstained," i.e., "God blessed the seventh day and
sanctified it because He abstained from all His work which God
created to make" (Gen. 2:4).
century) interpreted these words to mean "he ceased to perform
all His creative work."
Why the need to abstain? Obviously it wasn't
because of tiredness! God's resting from creation teaches us that as
human beings created in the image of God, we too need to make time
for rest and purposely abstain from interfering with creation one day
of the week. The passion to create can sometimes be dangerous
especially for a technological society that prides itself on its
ability to create, manipulate and control the world around it.
There's a great story I would like to share with
you from Mrs. Lettie Cowman's wonderful book, Springs in the
Valley. In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a
long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads.
The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had
high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle
tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and
rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the
traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and
that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their
Then Mrs. Cowman concludes with this penetrating
exhortation: "This whirling rushing life which so many of us
live does for us what that first march did for those poor jungle
tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore
life's balance; too often we do not."
It is incredible to realize that Lettie Cowman
wrote these words almost fifty years ago.
Later in the Book of Exodus we read: "It will
be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the
Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he
abstained from work and rested" (Exodus,
A curious note. The Hebrew word for rested, vyenafesh,
can sometimes mean rest, ensouled, breath, to catch one's breath,
sweet fragrance, passion, and inner being of man. A nefesh can also
mean a living being. In the context of Shabbat,
God ensouled this day when He rested.
Why did God need to rest on the Shabbat
day? Was He tired from creating the world? Hardly. The Rabbis wanted
to teach us that work is not an end in and of itself. To be healthy,
to be free from the problems of earning a livelihood, we must have Shabbat
as a day to renew our strength and spirits. Like the natives of Mrs.
Cowman's stories, we must have time to renew our spirits, to catch
our breath and to become a living being once more. On Shabbat,
God created the possibility of renewal, which, in turn, is one of the
fundamental teachings of our faith.
The concept of the Shabbat
is radical in many respects. For hundreds of years Jews were
ridiculed for being lazy for resting on the Shabbat
day. For the past 500-600 years, the world was seen as one gigantic
clock. The universe was seen as an inanimate machine, as was the
planet. Even human beings were considered by the likes of the
behaviorists and the philosophers of positivism as nothing more than
a machine. Many denied that there was even such a thing as a mind or
Such thinking threatens the very existence of our
species today. Biological, chemical, nuclear warfare, and our
careless disregard of the planet's well-being threatens all of us
with the specter of omnicide. It is for that reason we were given the
Shabbat. Each of us
has a nefesh a soul. We are not machines. Shabbat
comes to teach us that each of us needs to have some sacred space to
enjoy ourselves with our families and friends.
provides the sacred time to feel one with our Creator and Friend. The
Shabbat Queen has come to provide our tired spirits with nurturing
and healing. Shabbat
provides us with the time to enjoy the world in silence and respect.
Our work isn't required to keep it going.
Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace. The
word Shalom means peace. What kind of peace? How do we attain
it? Peace must begin with peace of mind. Peace with ourselves, peace
with our health, peace with our wealth all of these qualities
will help us find fulfillment and satisfaction. Shalom also means
wholeness. That's what Shabbat is for a time to find shalom and
wholeness in our turbulent lives.
we celebrate the day by ceasing from our worries and work, we renew
our bodies and soul by resting. One way to celebrate the Shabbat
is with good food.
Even in their poorest of times, the Jews made
every effort to buy the special food and candles that mark keeping
the Shabbat. The
Shabbat table becomes a holy place where the family shares their joys
and wishes together.
We also feast on the Shabbat
with affection. One of the most terrifying aspects of the
technological society is the loss of intimacy. Many people in our
culture are desperate for affection, and most do not know how to give
it or receive it. Shabbat
gives us a special time to deepen our relationships. How many
families would benefit were the Shabbat
utilized to deepen our relationships with our children? Wouldn't
society prosper better? Today in the news (August 23, 1996), two
young children were gunned down in Jefferson Elementary School in
Brooklyn, NY. The news mentioned that nearly a third of all young
boys carry weapons to school. The question that ought to be raised
here is why are all these kids so insecure and frightened that they
need to carry weapons? The teachers and counselors all pointed out
that the families are horribly fractured. There is a profound need
for love and healing.
We need the Shalom of Shabbat now in our modern,
turbulent times, perhaps more so than ever. Shabbat
is not a luxury; it is a necessity for a long, healthy life.