Our Sages call the Sabbath Yesod Ha'Emunah, the very foundation of our faith. This is no exaggeration. For the loftiest thoughts by which Judaism has ennobled the human mind, the highest ideals for which our people have been striving for thousands of years at the cost innumerable lives, all are centered in the Sabbath.
Dignity of Work
"Six Days shall you labor and do all your work." The basis of the Sabbath is thus work – labor dignified by G-d's commandment. Work is not a degradation but man's holy birthright. How many centuries, millennia even, did it take the world to grasp this fundamental truth! It is a long way indeed from the Greek and Roman conception of labor as degrading, with the resultant lack of rights of the laborer, to the present-day status of the working Man. How much social unrest and misery, how many wars and revolutions, how much bloodshed could Mankind have been spared, had the Biblical ideal of the dignity of labor been made from the very beginning the basis of the social order!
Jewish tradition tells us that Adam became reconciled to his fate only when he was told that he would have to work. Work is indeed the prerogative of free-born creative man. "Great is work," our Sages say, "for it honors him who does it."
Yet work is not all. Work can make Man free, but one can also be a slave to work. When G-d created heaven and earth, says the Talmud, they went on unreeling endlessly, "like two bobbins of thread," until their Creator called out to them "Enough!" G-d's creative activity was followed by the Sabbath, when He deliberately ceased from His creative work.
This, more than anything, shows Him to us as the free Creator freely controlling and limiting the creation He brought into being according to His will – the Creator with a purpose.
It is thus not "work," but "ceasing from work" which G-d chose as the sign of His free creation of the world. By ceasing from work every Sabbath, in the manner prescribed by the Torah, the Jew bears witness to the creative power of G-d. He also reveals Man's true greatness. The stars and the planets, having once started on their eternal rounds, go on blindly, ceaselessly, driven by nature's law of cause and effect. Man, however, by an act of faith, can put a limit to his labor, so that it will not degenerate into purposeless drudgery. By keeping the Sabbath, the Jew becomes, as our Sages say: "domeh l'yotzero" – "like G-d Himself." He is, like G-d's, work's master, not its slave.
Man is truly great, however, only if he willingly co-operates in G-d's plan for the world, making use of his freedom to serve G-d and his fellow-men. Then he becomes, as the Rabbis put it, "a partner in the work of creation." Yet Man's very freedom can lead to his downfall. His great powers over the world of nature, which enable him to control and master it, harness its energies, mold and adapt it to his will – these very powers make it fatally easy for Man to think of himself in the guise of creator, responsible to no-one higher than himself. We of the twentieth century have seen what happens to the world and to Mankind when such ideas prevail.
But here the Sabbath comes to the rescue. As we shall see later in greater detail, we have here perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Sabbath observance.
It is possible to recognize the basic truth of G-d's creation of the world. But what does this mean to the average man and woman? Very little indeed. But here, as always, the Torah is not satisfied with mere theory. The Torah is interested in deeds – the practical outcome. Put like this the doctrine comes to life: "Living in G-d's world as His creatures, we must use all our human powers in His service." Only thus can we justify our existence, and at the same time ensure our own welfare and that of the human race.
The unique provisions of the Sabbath law, serve to keep this very practical consideration in the forefront of our minds. We are stopped on this one day from exercising our characteristic human powers of producing and creating in the material world. By this very inactivity we lay these powers in homage at the feet of G-d Who gave them…
In fact, (the Sabbath) says to us every week what G-d told the first human being: "I have placed you in this world of mine; everything I have created is for you. Set your mind to it that you do not corrupt and destroy My world."
Here we have the essence of Sabbath. The same act that proclaims Man's freedom, also declares his subservience to G-d. To use all one's powers in the service of G-d – there is no greater freedom than this.
Sabbath and Life
Another blessing flows from Sabbath – the blessing of menuchah or "rest." This menuchah is something much more than physical rest. It is an attitude of mind, a spiritual state, induced by the experience that is the Sabbath. It is compounded of many things.
There is the joy at being released from bondage to the pressing demands of everyday life.
Quite apart from the bondage of work, there are the insistent demands of our mechanical civilization – the bus, the car, the telephone; the demands, too, of our mechanical entertainment industry – radio, television, the cinema… Until we reflect, most of us are unaware of the toll these things take of our vital energy; we do not realize the extent of our enslavement. To take only one example, how many of us can sit alone in a room together with a ringing telephone without answering it? The summons is irresistible: we know that sooner or later we must answer it. On Sabbath this "must" does not exist. The relaxation, the relief of spirit which a real Jewish Sabbath bring, must be experienced to be believed.
The spirit of menucha finds its positive expression in the Sabbath meals in which the happy companionship of family and friends, the enjoyment of good food, the table-songs in praise of G-d and the Sabbath, all combine to form an entirely unique experience.
In this Sabbath atmosphere it is easy to feel the nearness of G-d, and to face life without worry and without regrets, in the confidence that we are all in His care.
With body refreshed and nervous tension relaxed, the mind is stimulated in its turn to achieve closer contact with G-d by the study of His Torah, not as an intellectual pastime, but in the full knowledge that it is the only source of truth and true living for the Jew. If we make this spiritual activity the positive content of the Sabbath's leisure hours, then when the Sabbath goes out it will leave us in all respects better equipped for the tasks of the coming week – better equipped, in fact, for the task of living.
reprinted from Arachim "Update" from (Feldheim Pub., 1972 by Dayan Dr. Isador Grunfeld)