Tuesday, May 26, 2009

When Was Shabbos Given?

It's rare to find a book on Jewish texts that has no practical relevance whatsoever but is still compelling reading. R. Elchanan Adler's Sefer Mitzvas Ha-Shabbos: Mi-Marah Ad Sinai does just that. Written for people well versed in Talmudic texts and commentaries, R. Adler's book takes you on a quest to solve a perplexing problem.

R. Adler begins with the following question: The Gemara (Shabbos 118b) famously states that if the Jews had observed their first Shabbos -- rather than having someone violate it (cf. Num. 15:32-36) -- then they would never have been conquered by another nation. However, as Tosafos (Shabbos 87b) point out, the Jews were actually commanded in Shabbos at Marah, before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and before that Shabbos violation. So actually, the Jews kept many Shabbosos before they violated it. Assuming both traditions to be true and consistent with each other, how can we reconcile them?

Click here to read moreWith this, R. Adler leads his reader through the various Talmudic and midrashic passages that discuss what aspects of Shabbos were commanded when. As quickly becomes clear, there were three times during which the Shabbos laws were commanded:

  • At Marah (Ex. 15:22-26)
  • At Alush, where the manna fell every except Shabbos (Ex. 16)
  • At Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:7-10)
To resolve the question above and explain what was commanded when and where, R. Adler reviews the answers that have been proposed in traditional commentaries. However, he does not simply restate the original comments; he adds value. He critically analyzes each proposed answer, attacking from various approaches and offering suggested responses to fend off the critiques. After making his way through the answers historically proposed, revising as appropriate based on his questions, R. Adler offers a number of his own suggestions.

Let me offer readers of this post a taste of some of the answers suggested, more like headlines than substantive responses:
  • In Marah they were taught about Shabbos but in Alush they were commanded to observe it
  • They were commanded almost all the laws in Marah but in Alush the commands regarding carrying and traveling long distances were added
  • In Marah they were given a positive command to observe Shabbos and in Alush a prohibition was added
  • Before Sinai, they were forbidden to work hard but after Sinai the details of the 39 labors were forbidden
  • At Sinai, Shabbos became a uniquely Jewish prohibition
  • The commands prior to Sinai were additions to the Noahide laws but the commandment at Sinai was part of the Torah
R. Adler addresses all of these issues within the aggadic framework: He does not question the historicity of the statements. This is not a contribution of modern scholarship but a continuation of the aggadic enterprise that has been going on for centuries. I found the book fascinating and many of the discussions to be brilliant.

You can listen to the author's lecture on this topic here: link

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