I hosted a Shabbat dinner last evening and shared with my guests the 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath. These categories, set out in the Mishnah, reflect the work associated with preparing the showbread for the ancient Temple (agricultural labors) and with building the tabernacle and creating the priestly vestments.
These categories of work are relevant to a time and a place, and over the centuries, ongoing interpretation has made them relevant to other times and places. The question that generates these prohibitions is the commandment that we should “rest” on the Sabbath. The question, therefore, is “What does ‘rest’ mean?” I can almost hear the rabbis discussing that concept.
The rabbis also make positive statements associated with the fourth commandment, to honor the Sabbath. These commandments and traditions include wearing festive clothing and refraining from unpleasant conversation, reciting kiddush over a cup of wine at the beginning of Shabbat meals or after morning prayers, eating three festive meals, engaging in pleasurable activities such as singing, studying, spending time with the family and marital relations, and reciting havdalah at the end of the Sabbath. It is the prohibitions, though, that have the status of commandments.
It occurs to me that with the prohibitions, the rabbis create a space for us to experience the meaning of “rest” freely instead of dictating what our experience should be. They are, in effect, modeling the freedom of Shabbat, freedom of worship.
The rabbis are confident that if we do not engage in the activities which fill our days, we will have a different kind of experience, an experience that will revolutionize our worldview. The prohibitions create a space for each of us to have that experience. We enhance the possibility of experience by engaging in the positive activities.
A tradition says that if every Jewish person observed Shabbat in all its particulars twice in a row, the Messiah would come (Shabbat 118). I believe that possibility exists because a complete Sabbath experience has the power to revolutionize perspective and worldview and as a result, one’s way of acting in the world.