Shabbat and Shevut: Who Knew Rest Was So Complicated

Mekhilta, Tractate Shabbat, on Exodus 31:13

“But My Sabbaths shall you keep” (Exodus 31:13). What is the intent of this? From “You shall not perform any labor” (Exodus 20:10), I would only know of melacha (labor) per se. From where would I derive shevut? It is therefore written “but My Sabbaths shall you keep” to include shevut.

How to Shabbat

What do we do on Shabbat? The Torah provides two primary verbs, drawn from the two versions of the 10 Commandments – zachor (remember) and shamor (keep or guard). The rabbinic tradition subsequently develops two categories for how we relate to Shabbat out of these verbs. Zachor (remember) becomes the aspect of celebration, while shamor (keeping/guarding) becomes the aspect of resting from labor. So we celebrate and we rest on Shabbat.

The Torah forbids work, but it doesn’t spell out what exactly that work is. The rabbis therefore derive 39 categories of melacha (labor) from the various activities carried out in constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Any labor associated with that central building project of the Torah becomes prohibited on Shabbat. Six days a week, we build a space for holiness in the world. The seventh day is meant solely for experiencing that holiness.

So we have 39 categories of melacha (labor) to avoid. However, the rabbis are keen to protect people from accidentally transgressing the Torah prohibitions, so they add on extra prohibitions which function as a buffer zone of sorts. These buffer laws for Shabbat are known as shevut. Shevut also encompasses laws that preserve the sanctity and restfulness of Shabbat, even if they are unrelated to one of the 39 categories of melacha.

Understanding the Midrash

Now we know what the midrash is referring to when it talks about melacha and shevut. The midrash simply seeks to find a scriptural basis for the idea of shevut. It cites a verse (Exodus 20:10) that very explicitly prohibits melacha, one of the 39 categories of labor. And then it suggests that our verse, Exodus 31:13, must be teaching us about shevut. How so?

In Mekhilta, there are at least two other midrashim on different verses about Shabbat that say basically the same thing. Each of them focuses on the word shamor (keep/guard), as in our midrash as well. It seems that the midrash thinks shamor, keeping and guarding Shabbat, must mean more than simply following the rules about melacha. Keeping Shabbat includes any law that truly guards the experience of holiness on this holiest day of the week.

Shevut as a Shabbat Practice

“But my Sabbaths you shall keep.” What is it we are keeping on Shabbat? A sense of holiness, a connection to God, a celebration of restfulness (these are all the same of course). There are the standard Jewish activities that help us realize these lofty goals, such as prayer, song, food, study. But there’s room to be creative, as the rabbis were. They instituted shevut, sacred constraints, to sustain a precious quality of time. What quality am I seeking to preserve and renew on Shabbat? What specific constraints help me guard that precious time? From Shabbat to Shabbat, I keep coming back to these questions, to let them rest within me and help me find a fitting, sacred rest.