• Rav Ari Kahn



The previous parasha, Ki Tisa, ended with Moshe coming down from the Mountain, visibly changed by his experience of proximity to God. Vayakhel, as its name would indicate, begins with Moshe gathering the people, ostensibly to teach them the Torah which he received at Sinai. He begins with the laws of Shabbat. This should come as no surprise; we know that Shabbat is among the most "important" of mitzvot, a cornerstone of Judaism. Some commentaries highlight the juxtaposition of this teaching with the sin of the Golden Calf. The sin of the Golden Calf was an act of idolatry, on some level; Shabbat, as testimony to God's having created the world in six days, serves as a spiritual antidote to idolatry in the future. A further connection between the sin of the Golden Calf and the choice of hilkhot Shabbat as Benei Yisrael's first lesson lies in the very nature of the sin: If we say that the Golden Calf was an attempt to "know God," Shabbat is offered by Moshe as the correct method to achieve this goal. If you seek God and wish to know Him, observe Shabbat. This is the proper way to experience the Divine.


What is striking is that the Jews have already been commanded to keep Shabbat, the idea of Shabbat having been mentioned on four different occasions in Shemot (16:23, 20:7-10, 23:12,31:13-17) aside from the teaching at "Marah" (15:25) where traditionally we learn that the Jews were commanded to keep Shabbat (See Sanhedrin 56a, Rashi 24:3). Why would a fifth time be necessary? A closer look at the specific teachings in this section may be enlightening:


"Six days do melakha (work) and the seventh day shall be for you holy, a Shabbat Shabbaton for God; whoever does melakha ("work") shall be put to death. Do not burn fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day." (35:2,3)


We may reduce these verses to two central ideas, 1- a prohibition against melakha, and 2- a prohibition against the use of fire. Certain questions arise immediately: What is "melakha"? Why is fire excluded from the category of "melakha" and mentioned separately? These questions are treated extensively in the Talmud in halakhic discourse, and surely no laws of Shabbat may be understood without halakhic definitions of work on the one hand, and the unique category of fire on the other. The general halakhic framework of this section is built upon placing it into the context of the building of the Mishkan. The word 'melakha' is the key to the section describing the work for the Mishkan (see, for example 35:21, 35:31, 35:33, 35:35, 36:1, 36:2, 36:3, 36:4, 36:5, 36:6, 36:7, 36:8), as well as the key to our parasha, where Moshe teaches the laws of Shabbat observance. Our Sages therefore deduce that the types of work described in the instructions for building the Mishkan are the same types of work prohibited when the Torah prohibits melakha on the seventh day. In a word, the melakha prohibited on Shabbat was the very same melakha used in constructing the Mishkan.


That said, a more basic question now replaces our previous questions: Why are the laws of Shabbat derived from the section dealing with the building of the Mishkan? In a literal and literary sense, one might say that we have already answered this question: The same word, "melakha" is utilized in both sections. But in a larger sense, this answer begs the question. Surely God is creative enough to have provided a "word play" in any section of the Torah, which would have elicited any number of alternative definitions for the key word "melakha." Why specifically from here, the section which describes the building of the Mishkan, are the laws of Shabbat derived? There must be some intrinsic relationship between Shabbat and the Mishkan.


Of these two concepts, it would seem that the notion of Mishkan is a more difficult one to grasp. Why would God need an earthly "home"? This question is posed by the Midrash:


"When the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moshe "Make for Me a Mikdash" (25:8) Moshe said in front of the Holy One Blessed be He, "Master of the Universe, the heavens and beyond can not contain You, and You say "Make for Me a Mikdash!" The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, "Moshe, not as you think I think, rather twenty boards to the north, and twenty boards to the south, and eight to the west, and I will descend and "Mitzamtzem" (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) among you below" (Pesikta D'rav Kahana Parasha 2:10, also see Shemot Rabba 34:1 where the conclusion is "... "Mitzamtzem" (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) in one amma by one amma").


The need, evidently, is not God's, but man's. For God to allow His presence to dwell in this Mikdash, some type of contraction, as it were, is necessary on the part of God. A similar question may be posed about Shabbat. Why does God need a "day of rest"? On a certain level we are comfortable with the idea of Shabbat; God created for six days, and rested on the Seventh. But upon critical analysis, it seems absurd - as absurd as God having a "home."


Let us reconsider the idea of Creation. First there was nothing, and then God created Heaven and Earth. This creation process continued for six days; at its completion God "rested." This description contains a number of deeply embedded athropomorphisms: God's "rest," as well as God's "creation." While our idea of work (melakha) is to effect change in existing material, this is the perspective of a finite being utilizing creativity within a finite scheme. God, however, is infinite. The very notion of creation includes time, space and matter, all concepts which God transcends. His creation is described as "yesh mei-ayin," matter from nothingness, ex nihilo creation. At times, Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation as "Yesh mei-ein," something from the Ein Sof, finite emerging from the Infinite. Consider the problem mathematically: Any value added to infinity necessarily yields a sum which is infinite. When God who is infinite creates a finite value, i.e., the world, the sum total of reality should remain infinite. How can finite be added to infinite? The Kabbalistic response to this question is a term known as "Tzimtzum" - contraction. Creation is not the result of God adding something finite; rather, He "holds back" infinity, as it were.


We may now see creation, and therefore Shabbat, from a different perspective. On the first day, God holds back infinity; likewise on the second through sixth days. Finally, at the end of the sixth day, the world is complete and God rests. In other words, God reverts back to a non-contraction mode, back to infinity. Shabbat is therefore the day which represents infinity, the one day which relates to and reflects God on His terms, not via the Tzimtzum.


This concept of Tzimtzum may give us further insight into Shabbat. As stated earlier, God exists outside of time; therefore creation marks the beginning of time. Shabbat, alternatively, represents the infinite. What time was it prior to creation? It was a time of "infinity" or, in other words, it was Shabbat! In Jewish thought, creation takes place on "the first day," the day after Shabbat. Creation is in the evening: "It was evening, it was morning, one day." Therefore it can be said that creation takes place the very moment that Shabbat is over. The moment prior to creation is infinity/Shabbat, and the moment after the six days of creation is Shabbat, our own avenue to infinity. Both points indicate the same moment from God's perspective, though separated by a world of difference from our perspective.


We have noted that man has the opportunity to touch infinity by partaking of Shabbat. This observation may help us understand the exclusion of fire from the other melakhot. When the Talmud takes up a question regarding certain details of havdala, the verse brought as substantiation is taken from Genesis:


One should not bless thecandles until they give proper light. This was expounded by Rebbi Zeira the son of Rebbi Abahu: "God saw that the light was good," and afterward it states, "God distinguished (Vayavdil) between light and darkness" (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot Chapter 8 Page 12b, Halakha 3). When we appreciate that the first day is the moment after Shabbat, this teaching takes on more meaning. Our havdala mirrors this first, essential havdala made by God with the act of creation. Rabbeinu B'chaye, commenting on this week's parasha, makes this connection very clear. He explains that fire is separated from the other melakhot in Moshe's teaching because, just as God began the creation with fire by saying "Let there be light," so man begins the week with the fire of havdala.


Let us return to the laws of Shabbat which are derived from the melakhot of the Mishkan. Creativity is manifest when the object is "improved," but this type of work is fundamentally different from the work which God performed in creation. God's work was "something from nothing," while our work is "something from something." Being that we are finite beings, our creation is necessarily different from God's. While God "held back" in order to create, man goes forward; while God returns to "infinity" on Shabbat, transcending the Tzimtzum He employed in creating the world, man must hold back his creative energies. What we have described is an inverse relationship, due to the fundamental difference between man and God. One may describe the relationship in the following terms: Man is said to be in the image of God; we are, in fact, the mirror image of God. We are opposites. Therefore on Shabbat we "hold back" while trying to be like God in the only way which we can - by imitating God's Tzimtzum. Perhaps that is what we mean when we describe our rest on Shabbat as "a commemoration of the act of creation": We do on Shabbat what God did in creation.


We may now understand the intrinsic relationship between the laws of Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan. Both represent this idea of God holding back. And just as God answered in the Midrash -


"Moshe, not as you think I think, rather twenty boards to the north, and twenty boards to the south, and eight to the west, and I will descend and "Mitzamtzem" (contract) My Shechina (Divine presence) among you below"


- so, too, must God hold himself back in order to make possible the very creation of the world.


I once heard my Rebbi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, explain these concepts as follows: For Jews, philosophical understanding leads to moral imperative. The Jew must emulate God, and practice Tzimtzum in various relationships. This is the idea of Gevura - strength, as in the Mishna,


"Who is strong? The person who practices self control." (Avot 4:1)


This idea arguably stands at the core of all Jewish ethics, and marks a radical departure in the way man sees his responsibilities vis a vis his fellow man. It is noteworthy that the Torah begins with "Bereishit bara Elokim," the name "Elokim" being associated with the mystical realm of "Gevura." God practices "self-control" by limiting the infinite in the process of creation. Therefore we may view Shabbat as a one-day adventure in self-control often involving even the most mundane, arguably trivial activities, only because they are defined as creative activity, "melakha." It is hoped that such self control will "spill over" into the week, elevating all our actions and thoughts. This idea may be illustrated by an apparent contradiction between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud. The Bavli states:


"Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that if all the Jews were to observe just two Shabbatot properly, Redemption would come immediately." (Shabbat 118b)


The Yerushalmi states:


" If all the Jews were to observe just one Shabbat properly, the son of David would come". (Yerushalmi Ta'anit 1:1, 64a)


It is possible that the sources are not really contradictory. In truth, we must observe only one Shabbat, as stated in the Yerushalmi, but the one we must observe is the second Shabbat, as stated in the Bavli. There is, after all, a significant difference between the first Shabbat and the second. A Shabbat observed in a spiritual vacuum would surely be spiritually uplifting, but this is not the type of Shabbat which would lead to redemption. This first Shabbat should serve a different purpose, optimally influencing the ensuing week, effecting Sunday, Monday, etc. The spiritual value of that first Shabbat observed gives a different hue to the rest of the week. The second Shabbat, approached after a week so influenced, is completely different. It marks a spiritual apex, not a spiritual island. This is the type of Shabbat whose observance will bring about redemption. It is the Shabbat of a week, and a world, uplifted. (See the discussion in "Pri Tzaddik" by Rav Zaddok HaCohen Volume 4, 108-109.)


Both the concepts of Shabbat and Mishkan are about God dwelling in this world. By virtue of our incorporating Godliness into our lives we redeem the world. This was the great message imparted to Benei Yisrael by Moshe upon his descent from Sinai. This teaching gave them a channel to the Infinite God they sought.



[The core ideas expressed here, relating Shabbat to Tzimtzum, were taught by Rabbi Soloveitchik in a shiur entitled "Chanuka and Purim, Shabbat and Yom Tov."]



Addition by Rav Bick:


I would like to add two points to Rav Kahn's shiur.


a) One of the most striking aspects of the commandments of the building of the mishkan was the insistence on exact measurements for every article and for the structure itself. The parasha is riddled with "amot," length, width, and height. While the concept of "shiurim" is central to halakha, it should be noted that, firstly, most are MINIMUM shiurim, and secondly, they are not detailed in the Torah ("shiurim halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai"). It would have been reasonable, on the contrary, to expect that "more is better" - should build as magnificent a structure as they can (much like the building committee of your local synagogue). That these shiurim are in fact central to the concept of the mishkan/mikdash is strongly reinforced by the detailed repetition of the shiurim in I Melakhim 6 and II Divrei HaYamim 3-4. If in Teruma, the instructions can be justified by halakhic necessity - they had to know exactly what to do - and in our parasha, in order to tell us that they did "ka'asher tziva oto Hashem," EXACTLY as instructed, in the purely descriptive narratives of Neviim, it can indicate nothing other than that the shiurim are a central feature of the mikdash as the objects themselves.


The importance of shiurim, of course, is the importance of limits. Every object in the mishkan is limited, by definition, and ONLY THUS can it serve as the "resting-place of the Divine Presence. This is the idea of "tzimtzum."


b) The parasha (36, 4-6) describes how those in charge came to Moshe to complain that the people were donating too much to the mishkan ("halivai bai mir"). Notice the exact language: "The people are bringing too much for the work which God has commanded should be done." In other words, it is not too much for us, we could have used it to make an even better mishkan, but it is too much for THE WORK WHICH GOD HAS COMMANDED SHOULD BE DONE. Indeed, Moshe then orders the people to stop, "and the people were arrested from bringing." The significance of this incident is that the restraint ("vayikaleh") was as important a part of the donation as the donation ("nadva libo") itself. The Torah immediately concludes (36, 7) "the work (materials) was enough for all the work (that needed) to be done, AND MORE."


Further study:


1. Given the idea presented in the shiur, try and explain the following:

a. Why was this commandment of Shabbat (as well as the rest of the parasha) given "behakhel"? - Moshe gathered "all of the congregation of Israel."

b. Why was "kindling" singled out from the other melakhot here?


2. To a certain extent, this week's shiur is the opposite of last week's. Can the two approaches be resolved?


3. people who actually constructed the mishkan are described by the term "nesa'o libo" (his heart lifted him up). (See Ramban 35,21) How does this relate to the theme of "tzimtzum" in the mishkan?


4. See the prayer of Shlomo (I Melakhim 8, 27 ff.), who asks the "tzimtzum" question. Off hand, Shlomo's answer (28-30 and repeated throughout the rest of the prayer) is different than the one given in the shiur.