Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Shabbos Elevator Pitch

In R. Yaakov horowitz's latest column (link), he quotes a woman who describes the beauty of Shabbos in that it is 1) a time to be with family, 2) a time to unwind and 3) grow closer to God. I believe that only two of these three reasons have support from medieval authorities.

R. Sa'adia Ga'on (Emunos Ve-Dei'os 3:2) lists the following logical reasons for Shabbos and holidays, which he believes is generally about obedience to God but has secondary reasons as well:Click here to read more

  1. to rest from work
  2. to spend time acquiring wisdom
  3. for extended prayer
  4. to meet with others to study religion
I find it noteworthy that he did not include in his list anything about family gatherings and spending time together. He did add "and other similar things" but I find it farfetched to think he meant spending time with one's family. (Note also his distinction between acquiring wisdom and studying religion, which I think might be sanction for studying philosophy on Shabbos.)

The Sefer Ha-Chinukh (no. 32) suggests that Shabbos is about strengthening traditional Jewish faith in God and Creation. This may be my ignorance, but I am not aware of any medieval authority who claims that Shabbos is about family bonding.

The first question is why this explanation is left out. Is the omission due to cultural issues? Maybe Shabbos was not a time for family in those days. Is it possible that in those days family gatherings were not considered important, perhaps because family was close for other reasons or was not close at all? Maybe men would spend most of Shabbos among other men, much like Chassidim used to leave their families for holidays in order to visit their Rebbes. I can only speculate.

But a further question is whether we have the right to offer a reason that earlier authorities omitted. Is this practical benefit of Shabbos merely incidental, and not something intended or even significant? This might even imply that it is wishful thinking on our part. Perhaps our seeing this benefit in Shabbos is a reflection of the influence of modern society on our consciousness, while more traditional Jews would not see this?

I suspect that a careful reading of philosophical and apologetic literature throughout the ages will find many examples of Jews reading their contemporary values into the Torah, ideas which were later rejected and which we, today's Jews, would find strange. Are we guilty of that ourselves?

Or perhaps "guilty" is not the right word. Maybe this is part of finding eternal relevance in the Torah and seeing how it can speak to different people in different times and places.

Be that as it may, I prefer to stick to the reasons for the mitzvos found in the sources.

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