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). Nachmanides (12th 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 bodies.
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, 31:17).
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 a soul.
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.
Shabbat 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.
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.