Sunday, February 22, 2009

Does God Keep Shabbos?

The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 30:9) tells a story that happened when Rabban Gamliel, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar and R. Akiva went to visit Rome (see this post: link). They presented to some government official (perhaps the emperor Nerva) and explained that God is not like a human ruler: when a human makes a rule he expects his subjects to follow it but he does not; when God makes a rule He follows it as well. This was perhaps a request of the emperor that he display the tolerance to the Jews that he expects his subjects of many nationalities to have for each other.

After these rabbis left, a sectarian asked them whether it is really true that God follows His rules. Doesn't He make the wind blow and the rain fall on Shabbos just like during the week? This sectarian was most likely an early Christian advocating against keeping the Shabbos laws, notably in Rome where, according to some historians, antinomianism was more dominant among early Christians than in Jerusalem. The rabbis responded that everyone is allowed to carry within their own domain. Since the entire world belongs to God, it is His domain and He can move the wind and rain without violating the law.

I think that there is more to their answer than just the clever technical response.

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I think that there is more to their answer than just the clever technical response. After all, despite the loophole that they found, the net result is that God acts on Shabbos just like He does throughout the week. Wasn't that really the sectarian's question?

The prohibited Shabbos labors have confounded many students because they do not all represent difficult work and some hard labor is even technically permitted (although likely forbidden rabbinically). R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Ex. 20:10; I think this is also discussed in his Horeb and see Dayan Isadore Grunfeld's The Sabbath) proposed a global view of the Shabbos laws, that they represent "construct labors". (According to some, that is why carrying is considered a lesser labor [melakhah geru'ah], because it causes no constructive change in an object.) God created the world through constructive work in six "days" and on the seventh "day" he ceased creating. Similarly, on the seventh day of each week we cease from constructive labor.

I would suggest that what the rabbis were saying is that after the time of Creation, God is in a continual state of "rest". He worked for six days to create the world and then stopped creating. Our rest on Shabbos is an imitation of God's actions (or lack thereof) from the first Shabbos and continuing beyond to this day. So while it is true that God acts the same on Shabbos as He does during the rest of the week, that is because He is done creating. On Shabbos, we also refrain from creating like God constantly does.

This is not meant to imply a Deistic view, the God created the world and then did nothing after that. However, there is a middle position between Deism and the view of continuous creation -- that God constantly recreates the universe. This middle position is that of the Rambam (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1, first principle; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:1) -- that God constantly upholds the universe (constant conservation). If God would withdraw from the universe then everything would cease to exist but He does not constantly recreate everything.

On reading R. J. David Bleich's classic book Bircas HaChammah, I was surprised to see that he claims that the Rambam adopts the view of constant creation (pp. 40-41 in the 2009 edition). However, there is one point where R. Bleich equates what he calls "the doctrine of continuous creation" and "the principle of constant conservation". On discussion with me, he clarified that he was merely asserting that the Rambam holds of constant conservation, but was not precise with his terminology because this was not a context where philosophic precision was appropriate. He mentioned that Renes Descartes accepted the view of continuous creation and I pointed out that R. Eliyahu Dessler did as well (Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 1 pp. 183-185). I believe that this was also a prominent view among Kalam theologians.

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