The Gemara Megila (9a) tells that Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, once gathered seventy-two Jewish elders and put them in separate rooms without telling them why. He then instructed them to write down the text of the Torah. He had separated them to prevent them from conferring together: Had the elders just written the traditional text there would have been a danger that he could have asked apparent contradictions in the text, found insults to his religion or even accused the Jews of encouraging a rebellion against his rule. They all made changes but miraculously they all made identical changes in the text, which are listed in the Gemara. One of them was the text of the pasuk “And He finished on the seventh day the work that He had done and He rested on the seventh day from the work that He had done.” (Bereishis 2:2) All seventy-two elders realised that Ptolemy could have asked a strong question on this pasuk since it implies that Hashem continued the creation of the world on the seventh day before He rested. This would have contradicted the Jewish understanding that Hashem completed the creation on the sixth day and rested on the seventh and consequently challenged the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbos. Therefore they all changed the text to “And He finished on the sixth day.the work that He had done.
Rashi explains that Chazal understand the pasuk to mean that after the six days of creation there was something — rest — missing, which Hashem ‘created’ on the seventh day. However Ptolemy would not have accepted this explanation and would have claimed that there are mistakes in the Torah. However we have to ask why Ptolemy would not have accepted the explanation of Chazal. Why would he not have agreed that a day of rest is important?
What is the real explanation of the creation of rest? Why was it necessary? The obvious explanation — that people would become tired if they worked without a break — does not fully answer the question. People could rest whenever they were tired or at night. Why is the concept of an official day of rest important. Why is Shabbos so vital? One idea is that Shabbos is the day when we can take a step back to check whether we are living correctly, remembering our ultimate destination. Another central theme in our working for six days and resting on Shabbos is to reaffirm our belief that Hashem also ‘worked’ for six days to create the universe and rested on the seventh. On Friday night both in shul and at home we repeat the paragraph Vayechulu to emphasize this belief publicly. But maybe we can add yet another dimension to our understanding of Shabbos.
In the account of the creation (Ibid 1:27-28), we read, “And Hashem created man in His image, in the image of Hashem He created him, male and female He created them. And He blessed them and He said to them, be fruitful and multiply, fill up the earth and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the sky and every living thing that moves on the earth.”
These pesukim define the task of human beings in the world. We are to take everything which we find and use it to develop the world. To utilise what Hashem has created in a way which will benefit mankind. To explore new frontiers, to develop agriculture, to discover healing potential in plant life, to make progress in technology; to ‘conquer’ the world as the pasuk said. However that is for six days. “For six days shall you work.” (Shemos 20:9). On the seventh day we do not work. We do not pursue anything new. We do not look forward but back. We rest and take stock of what we have achieved. We thank Hashem for what we have.
David Hamelech clearly indicated that our task on Shabbos is appreciating what we have and giving thanks to Hashem. Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos. Tov l’hodos l’Hashem ulezamer l’shimcha elyon. Lehagid baboker chasdecho ve’emunasecha baleilos. “A Song of the Shabbos day. It is good to thank Hashem and to sing to Your name, Oh most High One. To speak of Your kindness in the morning and Your faith in the nights.” (Tehilim 92) The Radak on this pasuk says Shabbos is the day we have been given to concentrate on wisdom and the service of Hashem. It is the day ideally suited to giving thanks to Hashem. We should thank Him for all His kindnesses including the wonders of ‘nature’ We have time to think about the miracle of the air which we breathe, how the rain falls to enable crops to grow, how the sun gives us light and warmth and provides for trees, grasses and the vast variety of fruit and vegetables which Hashem has created for us to enjoy, etc.
Chazal instituted that we say Nishmas on Shabbos morning. “… If our mouth were as full as song as the sea, our tongue as full of joyous song as the the multitude of waves, our lips as full of praise as the breadths of the heavens, our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky, our feet as swift as hinds, we still could not thank You sufficiently Hashem, our G-d and G-d of our fathers and bless Your name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands and thousands, myriad myriads of favours that You have performed for our fathers and for us. You redeemed us from Egypt, Hashem our G-d, You liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine you nourished us, in plenty You sustained us. From the sword you have saved us, from plague You let us escape and You spared us from severe and enduring diseases…”
On Shabbos we also add to our pesukei d’zimra the twenty-six lines of Hallel Hagadol which all end with the words ki l’olam chasdo – His kindness is forever. Our feelings of thanks to Hashem during these lines are so intense that it is written that the malachim in shomayim pause their praises of Hashem at that point and allow us to take over. The Ohr Zorua brings a medresh that Hashem refused the request of the Serafim for a seventh wing so they could sing to Hashem on Shabbos as well. Hashem told them that he has the Jewish People who sing to Him on Shabbos.The writer of the zemer, “Kol mekedesh shevi’i” implies in his words “so’adim bo levarech shalosh pe’amim” that we don’t say Birkas Hamazon three times over Shabbos because we have eaten three meals but we eat three meals on Shabbos in order to able to say Birkas Hamazon three times.
Hopefully we all sit at our Shabbos tables with our family and friends and enjoy beautiful foods. What better time is there to thank Hashem for all our blessings? We can think back to the previous week and ask each member of the family, “What good thing happened to you this week?” What did you enjoy most? Whatever answer is forthcoming can be a springboard to thank Hashem.
Shabbos is a gift to the Jewish People. (Beitza 16a) Thanking Hashem is not only an obligation but it gives us great pleasure because when we verbalise our blessings we appreciate them so much more.
Ptolemy and his like would never understand this. They want to conquer more, make more progress, 24/7. To stop is a waste of a day. Indeed, as we say in the Shabbos morning tefila,”…velo nesato legoyei ho’aratzos…” – You didn’t give the Shabbos to the nations of the world. They are not interested in humbling themselves before Hashem. Nebuchadnetzar thought of himself as Hashem’s equal. (Yeshayahu 14:14). For us, however, admitting that our blessings come from Hashem is a tradition thousands of years old. It is a badge of honor. We enjoy being close to Hashem. He calls us beni bechori Yisroel – my firstborn son. As we say in Musaf Shmone Esrei, those who observe Shabbos achieve honor, life and greatness. Whatever our weekday profession, on Shabbos we dress and look like royalty. And the theme of the day is our declaration Tov lehodos l’Hashem – It is good to thank You, Hashem for all Your blessings.
As printed in my sefer, From Strength to Strength.