Secret of the Sabbath

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

It isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.

Since one can never bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite, the rabbis taught that one may instead adhere to God by simulating divine activity through earthly human labor.22 According to this view, the human being is blessed with a unique element that distinguishes him from other creatures and draws him nearer to God: The desire and ability to create. R. Haim of Volozhin, a leading rabbinical authority of the early nineteenth century, drew a connection between man’s imitation of God and his ability to create and to influence whole worlds: “Man is seen as the heart and soul of a hundred million worlds… and to him alone is given the rule of choice, to turn himself and the worlds in whatever direction he chooses.”23 R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik makes the point more explicitly: “There is no doubt that the term ‘image of God’… refers to man’s inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator.”24 When man makes bold changes in his world to make it meet his needs and plans, his actions are a reflection of the original model of all work: The divine act of Creation.25

When it first appeared, this idea of human creativity—that is, of an analogy between productive human effort and the divine act of Creation—was, in all likelihood, completely new. The pagan worldview understood human culture to be an integral part of a larger complex of nature, with its eternal rhythms, and was therefore ill-suited for anyone who saw innovation, the effort to create something that has not previously existed, as a positive ideal. Thus, for example, the Greek language lacks any verb meaning “to create.” Instead, it suffices with the verb “to make” (poi’ein). This approach is also reflected in the way the Greeks understood the ideal of imitation, or mimesis. Like the Hebrews, the Greeks believed in imitation as necessary for proper thought and conduct; yet the object of their imitation was not God, but nature. In this spirit, the philosopher Democritus wrote that “in the most important things, we have learned from [animals], spinning and mending from the spider, housebuilding from the swallow, and singing by imitation from songbirds, the swan and the nightingale.”26 The Greeks believed that man must find his place in the cosmos while merging, via mimesis, with the eternal, objective order of the phenomenal world.27 For them, the gods were merely limited entities, themselves incapable of violating the cosmic law; they certainly did not constitute a perfect model for identification and imitation. Even the gods at times engaged in mimetic activity; for example, the creation narrative cited by Plato in the “Timaeus” depicts the image of a godly but limited “demiurge” who unsuccessfully attempts to imitate the eternal ideas, which are beyond his grasp.28

The biblical approach is altogether different. As against the pagan longing for union with the natural order, the Tora depicts the idea of a sovereign, active and dynamic will, which is creative at its core. The idea of creation ex nihilo attests to the unlimited power and freedom of the Holy One. God is not part of a preexisting cosmos, but is rather its creator and author. The laws of nature are upstaged by the will of the divine legislator, who can break them at any time. It is the will of God, and not its derivatives, which is of foremost concern to the religious person. By imitating the Creator rather than nature, man, through acts of creativity, introduces innovations into his world, breaking free from the predetermined cycle of nature, and gaining thereby a taste of the divine freedom.

This doctrine was alien to the spirit of classical culture, the latter’s impressive artistic and technical achievements notwithstanding. Even when, with the rise of Christianity, Western culture accepted the idea of creatio ex nihilo, creativity was still widely perceived as an exclusively divine privilege, beyond human ability. As the sixth-century Christian philosopher Cassiodorus wrote, “Things made and created differ, for we, who cannot create, make.”29

The idea of liberating the human spirit from its subordination to the “natural forms” began to take hold in the West only with the Renaissance. The philosophers of that period, such as Nicolaus Cusarus and Giordano Bruno, drew a distinction between created nature (natura naturata) and artificial nature (natura naturans), regarding the latter as the field in which man’s creative potential would be realized, through his deliberate efforts to imitate God.30 Nature no longer symbolized the limits of human ability, but its point of departure, from which nearly anything was possible. Creative labor, wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “surpasses nature in dealing with things that are simply natural and finite, for the works which our hands do at the command of our eyes are infinite.”31

The debt owed by Western culture to Jewish theology is difficult to measure. Still, it would seem that inherent in the belief that God created the world from nothing, and that man’s role is to imitate the Creator through willful works, there was always a promise of bringing to fruition those qualities which make the human race unique. This redemptive promise, with the rejection of fatalistic naturalism that it implies, is one of the underlying assumptions of Western civilization since the Renaissance—an assumption which has played no small part in the great material and spiritual achievements of the West.



The Jewish doctrine of work, however, is not limited to the liberation of the will and the creativity of man’s spirit. It also embodies a second, contrary dimension: That which restrains human activity, setting for it boundaries and limits. The most important expression of this in Judaism is the Sabbath.

The prohibition of labor on the Sabbath represents the other side of man’s imitation of God’s ways as described in Genesis: That which is manifest not in creative activity but in refraining from it. This approach is reflected not only in the commandments of the biblical and midrashic literature, but also in the great halachic corpus on the subject which has developed through the centuries. While it is easy to lose one’s way in the forest of discussions, debates and homilies of generations of commentators, a close study of the halacha reveals a methodical line of thought, guided by a single fundamental principle. According to this principle, the obligation to refrain from work on the Sabbath refers precisely to that kind of creative effort which man is commanded to undertake during the rest of the week, in which he imitates his Creator through the application of his will.

This analogy between the human and the divine lies at the foundation of all the prohibitions of Sabbath labor. That this is the case can be seen from the very outset of the law’s interpretation by the Sages. Due to the Tora’s laconic language (the commandment “you shall not do any work” appears with little elaboration), the rabbis of the Mishna needed a model of “work” upon which to base their understanding of the law. They found one in the account of the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. This was due not only to the account’s appearance immediately following the description of the Sabbath in the book of Exodus, but, more importantly, to the tremendous significance of the project. Aside from being the most elaborate artistic effort described in the entire Tora, it is also pregnant with spiritual meaning, described in the sources as the perfect expression of the parallel between divine creativity and human labor.32

It is in this spirit that the Sages present the building of the Tabernacle as an express imitation of the process of Creation:

[The creation of] the Tabernacle is compared to the whole world, which is called a “tent,” just as the Tabernacle is called a “tent.” How so? [Regarding the first day of Creation] it is written, “In the beginning God made” and “He spreads forth the heavens like a curtain”; regarding the Tabernacle it is [similarly] written, “And you shall make curtains of goatskin for the tent of the Tabernacle.” Regarding the second day of Creation, it is written, “Let there be an expanse… that it may separate.…”; regarding the Tabernacle it is written, “So that the curtain shall be for you a separation.” Regarding the third day, “Let the water beneath the heavens be gathered”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing.” Regarding the fourth day, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “You shall make a lamp of pure gold.” Regarding the fifth day, “and birds that fly above the earth”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “The cherubim shall have their wings spread.” On the sixth day man was created; and regarding the Tabernacle [it is written], “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron.” Regarding the seventh day it is written, “The heaven and the earth were completed”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle”…. Regarding the seventh day it is written, “God completed”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “On the day that Moses completed.” Regarding the seventh day it is written, “And he sanctified it”; and regarding the Tabernacle, “And he sanctified it.”33

From the

The Haredim: A DefenseHow scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.
The Road to Democracy in the Arab WorldLiberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.
Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of KashrutThe most famous Jewish practice is really about love and national loyalty.
Civilians FirstOnly in Israel does concern for the safety of soldiers override the state’s obligation to defend its civilians.
Jews and the Challenge of SovereigntyIs "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022