Shabbat: A Model Of, and For, the World

Yitro By :  William Friedman Posted On Feb 6, 2015 / 5775 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
“[C]ultural patterns have an intrinsic double aspect: they give meaning . . . to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves.”
— Clifford Geertz, PhD, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, 93

In Parashat Yitro, the command to “remember” Shabbat (Exod. 20:8) is observed in order to recognize the eternal sanctity of the day on which God rested on the seventh day of Creation. This command is recapitulated in Deuteronomy with significant revision: the Israelites are to “observe” Shabbat (Deut. 5:12) in order to ensure that slaves (i.e., workers) are given an opportunity for rest. What are we to make of these dual aspects of Shabbat, one in which we reenact God’s primordial resting; the other in which we attempt to achieve a measure of protection for the economically vulnerable?

I found a key to unlocking this mystery in the above-cited insight of American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Dr. Geertz has recourse to the idea that rituals (what he calls “cultural patterns”) serve bothas models of reality—our practices derive from how we think things really are—as well as models for reality: to  model in our religious practices an idealized world. Shabbat, I think, works in exactly this way: it both shapes itself to reality, acting as a model of, and shapes reality to itself, acting as a model for.

Deuteronomy sets out an idealized economic scenario—workers and employers are leveled, and each is in charge of his or her own time, never to be exploited. Here, Shabbat takes reality as it finds it and reshapes that reality, acting as a model for a different, economically leveled world. Exodus, however, builds on the preexisting model of Creation, shaping itself to the world as it imagines it: God creates for six days and then ceases from creating, modeling for mortals the proper mode of living in the world: work for six days and rest on the seventh.

These two aspects of Shabbat reinforce each other. Reality is economically exploitative; Shabbat serves both as a material check on that exploitation (by forbidding it one day a week) and as a vision of what a non-exploitative world could look like. But the Torah is not content to let Shabbat be merely a piece of social justice legislation; it sees Shabbat as built into the structure of Creation itself, as the pinnacle of that creation. Emulating God’s restbecomes a powerful motivator for behaving ethically, and behaving ethically comes to be internalized as a manifestation of emulated God.