Shabbat, Israel and the Nations

Following the conclusion of creation, the Torah tells us about the first Shabbat:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

According to the account of "Seder Olam", God waited 2,448 years from creation of the world until the event at Mount Sinai, when he actually commanded the Israelites to observe the Sabbath, in commemoration of his creation:

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

In the writings of our Sages, you can find opinions that even forbid Gentiles from keeping the Sabbath. For example, Resh Lakish's exegesis:

Resh Lakish said: A Gentile that observes the Shabbat – deserves death, as it is stated: "day and night, shall not cease" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin, 58:2)

However, the fact that the Sabbath was given to Israel is not self-evident. Why did the Lord wait all this time to command the Israelites to observe the Sabbath? What's more, why is the Sabbath special to Israel? After all, the Sabbath concludes the creation of the entire world and also precedes the distribution of humanity to different nations. While it is true that many other commandments given to Israel are also based on historical events, for example: circumcision; the commandments related to the exodus, and the prohibition related to eating a tendon. But all those historical events are uniquely related to the ancestors of the nation and the history of the people of Israel. In contrast, the Sabbath is the only commandment given exclusively to Israel, even though it is based on an event that is not specifically related to the people of Israel. An indication that the Sabbath is not the special enterprise of the Israelites can be seen in communities of "Sabbath observant" Christians numbering millions. For these Christians, the Sabbath is a gift God gave to all mankind at the time of creation and therefore they continue to mark it ,as is customary today. If so, why was the Sabbath not chosen to be the day of rest for Adam and all of humanity, in commemoration of God's rest at the end of the act of creation?

One possible answer is that God chose to give observance of the Sabbath only to the children of Israel because only of them did he have requirements. For that reason, he commanded only them to keep the Sabbath. However, this answer does not stand the test of reality, for even before the appearance of the people of Israel, God had already placed demands on human beings and conferred upon them His precepts. The Lord placed Adam and Eve on earth and commanded them to "labor and worship" (Genesis 2:15); He commanded them not to eat of the good and bad tree (Genesis 2:17); He commanded them to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the land (Genesis 1:28); And he allowed them to eat only vegetation. Later God allowed Noah to consume animals while prohibiting the killing of humans (Genesis 9:1-7) and then he continued to command them. This group of commandments is known in Judaism as "Seven Laws of Noah”

Moreover, even if God did not explicitly command man to keep the Sabbath, it would be appropriate for mankind to do so as an expression of recognition of the act of creation and as an example of God's rest after six working days. This is because the Lord's demands on humanity are not always formulated with explicit imperatives. Sometimes, instead of an explicit command, there is only the expectation of the Lord that humans will behave in a certain way. For example, we do not have knowledge that the Lord commanded Cain and Abel to offer sacrifices, and yet they realized that this was the right thing to do. Also, we did not see that God commanded humans to act decently and modestly, but when humans over engaged in their evil ways, so that "the earth is filled with violence because of them" (Genesis 6:13); he brought the flood upon them. When they gathered in one place and built a tower, God spread them all over the earth. And when he heard the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord came down to see "whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me" (Genesis 18:21). It is therefore not inconceivable to expect that Adam would show respect for the Sabbath on his own, especially in light of the fact that God did eventually command the observance of the Sabbath. As such, the Sabbath would have become universal and the legacy of all mankind, so why was the Sabbath given only to Israel?

The answer is that the Sabbath is indeed universal and intended for all mankind, as a result of the story of creation as it appears in the Book of Genesis. 

The week

According to the description of creation in the Book of Genesis, the Sabbath is the weekly day of rest. Six days a person works for a living and on the seventh day he rests in order to gain strength to continue working. Time off from work also allows for bringing together man with himself, and with his family and his community. Unlike the existing cycles in nature, day and night, as well as the lunar and solar year, the seven-day cycle, as we know it, is not grounded in any natural phenomenon but is due to human consent. On account of the Book of Genesis, the seven-day cycle and the existence of a weekly rest day are given religious significance as they signify the renewal of the world by the Creator of the world in seven days.

In his commentary on the beginning of the book of Genesis, Moshe David Cassuto explains that the Sabbath was known even before it was given to the people of Israel, but it had a different meaning. The Sabbath prior to the Israelite Sabbath was associated with moon worship and was considered a day of misfortune. According to Cassuto, the Israelite Sabbath established a divergent model to the Sabbath idea that preceded it:

[...] The Israelite Sabbath cannot be the same as that of the gentiles; it will not be the day of the full moon or any other day that is dependent upon sighting the moon and connected to any lunar ritual, but rather being the seventh day of the week [...] seventh in undeviating order, independent and free from any connection to heavenly signs and from all astrological concepts; neither a day of rituals devoted to the heavenly hosts, but a day that is holy on account of the One who created all the heavenly hosts and the entire universe [...] in commemoration of the act of creation; neither a day of mental torture or of bad luck, but a day of blessing [...], not a day by which to placate an angry deity but a divine day of resting from work that can serve as a model for all mankind, who are required to adhere to the traits of God, and therefore is a day of rest for all mankind who are fatigued and afflicted by hard labor, and, as well for all living creatures [...] a day that serves, therefore to commemorate the exodus of Israel from slavery [...] (M.D. Cassuto, From Adam to Noah, a commentary of the order of Genesis, page 44.)

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the "Kuzari Book" also assumes that a seven-day week was known from the dawn of mankind. The fact that throughout the world a seven-day week is observed rather than ten-day model, proves the truth of the creation story:

Said the friend: Have you heard of a nation that disputes the acknowledged week, which begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday? Is it probable that the people of the West would concur with the people of the Western Isles without prior consensus? (Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, Kuzari Book, A:57)

One can follow in the footsteps of Cassuto and Halevi and make a case in accordance with the Sabbath descriptions in the books of Genesis and Exodus, that the Israelite Shabbat commandment that appears in Exodus was not the institution of a seven-day week nor the establishment of a weekly rest day. These existed in one form or another even before. The novelty was in the divine decree to the children of Israel, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:7), thereby adding the dimension of holiness to the Sabbath day, which was present even before the decree.

It is important to clarify: the Torah is not a history book in the scientific sense of the word. The question of whether in historical reality the Sabbath was a weekly rest day before the birth of the Israelites is secondary. Furthermore, I do not claim that historically the Sabbath existed, in one version or another, in all cultures that preceded the people of Israel. Nor do I claim that such a Sabbath was related to the creation story. These claims are inconsistent with our knowledge of history and human culture. My contention is that the biblical story of God's conclusion of His work on the seventh day of creation, as told in the Book of Genesis, along with the command to the children of Israel in the book of Exodus to sanctify the Sabbath day (i.e., sanctifying what already existed), is based on the observation that the story of creation in six days and God's conclusion of his work on the seventh day was known to all mankind. In other words, when the Israelites were commanded to observe the Sabbath after the Exodus, they understood this as adding a layer of holiness to the seventh day of the week, an institution that already existed in one form or another (even if in practice few had kept the Sabbath before).

If we accept this assumption, it can be said that the Sabbath was given to all of humanity, in commemoration of God's creation. And, although according to the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, the Sabbath is universal and belongs to all humanity, nevertheless, as stated in the Book of Exodus, only the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath. Why? What is special about the people of Israel, that they alone were commanded to observe the Sabbath?

The Shabbat and Israel

The Sabbath consists of different strata. The first tier, the one I've dealt with so far, is the very existence of the week - a seven-day cycle that ends on a day of rest and serves as recognition of the act of creation. The second tier is unique to Israel - the blessing and sacred tier of the Sabbath itself that appears in the following verse:

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2:3)

Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in his essay, "The Sabbath", that the Sabbath expresses the sanctity of time and is the unique addition of Judaism to human culture. The Sabbath is a "timely temple" created by maintaining a branched system of laws, imperatives and meta-halachic prohibitions that give Sabbath its special character. It creates a "sort of afterlife" within this world, a day of rest in the heart of the physical life and a time for spiritual transcendence and connection with the source of creativity and holiness. Therefore, in order to keep the Sabbath, one must practice holiness, that is, be holy.

The first mention of the concept of "holiness" in the Torah (in the positive sense of the term) is related to the Sabbath day: "So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it" (Genesis 2:3). His second reference is to the Israelites. On the eve of the Mount Sinai event, when the Lord is about to make a covenant with the children of Israel, he said to Moses: "you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6) This is the founding motif of the people of Israel. To that end, they exist and that is their purpose, as it is written in Leviticus:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Only the people of Israel, who are commanded to be holy, can observe the Sabbath that was hallowed by God at the dawn of creation, thereby fulfilling its purpose. Therefore, the commandment "keep the sabbath day to consecrate" (Deuteronomy 19:1-2) is the sign of covenant only between Israel and the Lord.

The people who sanctify the Sabbath

An expression of the idea that the uniqueness of the Sabbath and thereby its connection to the people of Israel are expressed in its holiness, appears in the passage from the morning prayer on the Sabbath. This is the passage in which the Sabbath is described as a gift given to the people of Israel and not to the nations:

And God did not give it to the Gentiles.
And did not bestow it to idol worshipers.
Neither will the uncircumcised rest in its repose
for I have given it in love to your people Israel,
the seed of Jacob, who are the chosen ones.
Those who keep the Sabbath and call it a delight shall rejoice in the kingdom;
all the people who sanctify the seventh day
shall fully rejoice in your goodness.
You were pleased with the seventh day and sanctified it,
and called it the most desirable of days.

God's unique gift to the people of Israel was not the weekly rest day. This was given to all of humanity at the completion of creation. The unique gift given to Israel is the holiness of the Sabbath. Here's how Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein, author of the "Aruch Hashulchan" explains this:

The Holy Sabbath is the great sign between God and His people Israel, as it is written: " for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the Lord who sanctify you.” (Numbers 31:13).

Meaning: Even though the Sabbath commemorates the creation, "for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed” and therefore, "God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" etc, it rightfully belongs to all mankind, and has nothing in common with the biblical festivals that commemorate the exodus from Egypt, which other nations did not experience, as they did not exit from Egypt. But, as for the act of creation, when all were created, God gave the sanctification of the Sabbath to Israel alone. And that is the meaning of "so that you may know that I am God who has sanctified you” (Exodus 31:13). In other words, that you are holy to me. As it is written "Holy shall you be" (Leviticus 19:2), and that is why I gave you the holy Sabbath. And the Sabbath and Israel are the purpose of creation.

And this is what is intended in the Sabbath morning prayers read in the synagogues, “And God did not give it to the Gentiles etc.” (morning prayer on the Sabbath), although it would seem that it belongs to everyone.

And this is what is stated in the first chapter of the Talmud tractate entitled "Sabbath": "I have a good gift in my treasure chest and it is called, 'Sabbath.'. Go [Moses] and tell this to Israel, etc." (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat, 12-12), even though I could have given it to all who were created. (Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim, beginning of Siman 342)

Between Israel and the Nations

Although the sacredness of the Sabbath is a unique covenant between God and the people of Israel, we must remember that according to the story of creation, the special Sabbath for the people of Israel is essentially based on the universal basic stratum, which belongs to all mankind. This tier is reflected in the existence of a week in which six working days and a weekly rest day, constitute a universal week, with the Israelite Sabbath being the seventh day. Moreover, the worldwide recognition of the seven-day week, which has traditionally been maintained continuously from the creation of the world to the present, is what allows the people of Israel to observe the Sabbath. Without it, it would have been almost impossible to preserve what we know as Saturday. Imagine what would have happened if the World Week had consisted of 10 days, as they were trying to introduce in France after the French Revolution, or if the proposal to have a calendar where dates always apply the same day of the week would be accepted, such as the "World Calendar" proposed in the US in the 1930s, in the previous century. According to this calendar, in the first day of January would always fall on Sunday, and at the end of each year, immediately after December 30, which would be Saturday, a "World Day" would be added but not as part of a normal weekday. The original Sabbath, would thereby have "moved" over the years and occurred on different days throughout the week and would not allow for a regular rest day. Ultimately humanity rejected these attempts to change the weekly time frame and in doing so ratified the recognition of the act of creation.

Therefore, human consent for a seven-day week cycle is the basis for allowing the people of Israel to observe the Sabbath. Had the nations of the world not recognized the seven days of creation, Israel would not have been able to keep the Sabbath. This insight sheds light on understanding the relationship between Israel and the nations of the world, from the Torah viewpoint. Balaam said of Israel, (Numbers 23:9), "There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the world" and as such described the people of Israel as cut off from the nations of the world. But, as I previously mentioned. the Torah has fixed firmly that the mission of Israel is "to be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), serving as the priests of the world, just as the descendants of Aaron function within the people of Israel. According to this concept, the people of Israel are an integral part of the peoples' family and not detached from it. This perception is expressed in the illustration used by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in his "Kuzari Book" regarding the relationship between Israel and the gentiles: "Israel in the organism of nations plays the central role of the heart.” (The Kuzari, chapter II, 36)

The Observance of the Sabbath in the Future as Prophesied in the Bible

I have shown that according to the Book of Genesis, the nations of the world also have a connection to the Sabbath in that they preserve the basic strata on which the Israelite Sabbath is based, the seven-day week, and the weekly rest day. This is the platform that enables Israelite Shabbat observance. In light of this understanding of the place of the Sabbath for all of humanity, Isaiah's prophecy that speaks of the reality of the Sabbath's existence even among the nations of the world can be better understood. Since the Gentiles also have a connection to the Sabbath, the future anticipates their joining the people of Israel in observance of the Sabbath. This is what Isaiah says in his prophecy:

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree."

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:1-7)

Isaiah appeals to all mankind, whomever they are: "Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast". He appeals to all those who observe the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and who hold fast His covenant. He promises that “I will bring [them] to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples".

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