It has been said that more than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jewish people.
Shabbos is the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments. It is also repeated more often in the Torah than any other commandment.
Shabbos, above all other commandments, defines us as Jews. In fact, Classical Judaism does not recognize such divisions as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There were basically only two kinds of Jews, The Sabbath Observer (Shomer Shabbos), and the Sabbath Violator (MeChallel Shabbos).
According to our tradition, it is clear that Shabbos plays a most central role in Judaism.
The question is why? What is so special about Shabbos? Why does it merit to be included in the Ten Commandments?
It may be nice to have a ‘day of rest’ every seven days, but why should it have such an important place in Judaism?
What is the real meaning of Shabbos?
To answer these questions, we have to go back to the fundamental beliefs of Judaism.
We Jews define G-d as the Creator of all things and the One who brought all things into existence, as it says in the very first verse in the Torah: "In the beginning, G-d created the Heaven and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Some people think that G-d created the world and then forgot about it. They may claim to believe in G-d, and even admit to some abstract Creator, but they insist, at the same time, that his existence has no bearing on their lives.
We see G-d as much more than this. When G-d introduced Himself in the Ten Commandments, He said (Exodus 20:2), "I am the L-rd your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. " G-d was telling us that He is involved in the affairs of man and has a profound interest in what we do.
These two beliefs – that G-d is the Creator of all things and that He created man with a purpose – are the very foundation of our faith. Our ultimate role and mission as Jews who are to be a “light unto the nations” is to proclaim these basic beliefs to the world.
But, as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his book Sabbath: Day of Eternity:
“Faith requires more than mere lip service. It must also involve action in the form of our steadfast adherence to G-d's will. The Hebrew word for faith is Emunah. It comes from the same root as Uman ---a craftsman. Faith cannot be separated from Action.”
The one ritual that demonstrates our belief in G-d as purposeful Creator is the observance of Shabbos.
As Rabbi Kaplan writes further: “For the Jew, belief in G-d is more than a mere creed or catechism. It is the basis of all meaning in life, for if the world does not have a creator, then what possible meaning can there be in existence! Man becomes nothing more than a complex physiochemical process, no more important than an ant or a grain of sand. Morality becomes a matter of convenience, or ‘might makes right’. It is the belief in G-d that gives life purpose and meaning. It is also what gives us a standard of right and wrong. If we know that G-d created the world, and did so for a purpose, then we also realize that everything that furthers this purpose is ‘good,’ and everything that runs counter to this purpose is ‘evil’.”
It is for this reason that Shabbos is so central to our faith and why it has kept the Jewish people going strong throughout the centuries and millennia of persecution and prejudice. Once each week, the Jew spends a day reinforcing his belief in a purposeful G-d and that his life has ultimate meaning. With this belief, his faith is fortified and he not only survives, but flourishes.
The Chafetz Chaim illustrates the centrality and importance of the Shabbos in a Jew’s life above all other commandments with a powerful parable. He bases it on the verse in Exodus 31:17 in which the Shabbos is referred to as a ‘sign’:
Imagine that you’re walking downtown one day and you see a store with a big sign on it that says “Yankel’s Shoes”. It’s your old buddy Yankel Goldstien’s shoe store. You look through the store window and see that the shelves are almost entirely empty. As long as the sign is up, however, you can rest assured that Yankel is still in business, though his stock might be depleted. Two weeks later you come back downtown and the sign is no longer up. Now you know that Yankel is unfortunately out of business.
Shabbos observance – explains the Chafetz Chaim – is the ‘sign’ that hangs on a Jew’s home indicating that he is still in ‘business’, the business of believing and teaching others that the world has a purposeful Creator Who is profoundly involved in our lives. His ‘stock’ might be depleted, i.e. he may not observe any other commandments, but as long as a Jew keeps the Shabbos, he is still open for business. However, if a Jew’s sign is down, i.e. he doesn’t even observe the Shabbos and the fundamental beliefs that it represents, then he is unfortunately ‘out of business’.
May we merit to always appreciate the gift of Shabbos that G-d gave us and to stay in business forever.
[To learn more about the real meaning and beauty of Shabbos, you can read Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s amazingly clear and concise book Sabbath: Day of Eternity for free online at: http://ou.org.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/kaplan/shabbat/default.htm ]
[Sources: Sabbath: Day of Eternity by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan OU/NCSY Publications]