Monday, May 6, 2019

When Was the First Shabbat?

Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is described in chapters one and two of Genesis, as God’s “day of rest.”

From time immemorial, until the present day, the human race has been counting days by sevens, week by week. The Sabbath, the longest-running religious experience, has been embedded into humankind’s DNA since the beginning of time. Tradition maintains that even the patriarchs and matriarchs observed Shabbat. A Midrash relates that Moses, the Egyptian prince with influence over Pharaoh, suggested that the Israelite slaves would labor more efficiently if they were given a day of rest every seven days. He, of course selected Shabbat, as that day off. Modern Hebrew does not have a word for Saturday. The term is so universally accepted, that even the most anti-religious Israeli will use the word Shabbat, when referencing the seventh day of the week.

Although observing the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments, our sages teach (Talmud Shabbat 87b) that the command to officially keep the Sabbath had already been given to the Jews at Marah, a stop in the Wilderness on the Children of Israel’s journey prior to their arrival at Sinai for God’s Revelation. Yet the sages note elsewhere (Shabbat 118b) that the Children of Israel did not fully observe that first Shabbat, as some unscrupulous Israelites rose to collect manna on Shabbat, even though God had informed them that enough manna would be provided on Friday for both days. The Tosafot ask (Shabbat 87b) how could the first Shabbat on which the manna did not fall be the first Shabbat which they were commanded to observe? After all, the Children of Israel’s stop in Marah took place at least two weeks prior to when the manna began falling, which according to the aforementioned Talmudic source, began on the 22nd of Iyar? Tosafot do not answer their question.

Rabbi Elchanan Adler, author of “Sefer Mitzvat HaShabbat,” and currently serving as a Talmud professor at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, cites another Midrash (Seder Olam Rabba chapter 5) that claims that the Jews were given the commandment to observe Shabbat and indeed observed Shabbat for the first time in a place called Alush. Rabbi Adler suggests that in Marah, Shabbat was presented to the Children of Israel in the abstract; at Alush, they were given the command and actually kept it for the first time. Rabbi Adler cites multiple commentaries who support his thesis. One of the “proofs” offered is the famous Pesach poem “Dayenu” (it would have been enough) that is recited during the Passover Seder. The author clearly presents the kindnesses for which the Jewish people must thank God in chronological order. First he cites the sustenance of the manna, then the gift of the Shabbat and then the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Adler suggests that if the sages truly believed the command to observe Shabbat preceded the manna, the author of Dayenu would have presented it in that order.

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