The Torah reading of Behar opens with a seemingly innocent statement in relation to the subject of the Sabbatical year but which demands explanation – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in mount Sinai, saying” (Leviticus 25, 1). Rashi, the great Biblical commentator of the Jewish tradition, who lived in the 11th century, cites a midrash (commentary of the Talmudic rabbis) which asks: “What has the matter of the Sabbatical year to do with mount Sinai – were not all commandments given on Sinai?”. I will leave aside the answer given by the midrash – but, I do want to point out that in the plain meaning of Scripture, not all commandments were given on Sinai as the midrash assumes. In the plain meaning of Scripture, there were commandments already given prior to Sinai and there were commandments given even after Sinai. I am concerned, though, not with a historical question of where the commandments came from.
Rather, I want to suggest that from a literary point of view, there is a very clear connection between the Sabbatical and Jubilee years (two main subjects of the Torah reading of Behar) and the revelation on mount Sinai. I also want to point out that the opening verse of the Torah reading of Behar “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in mount Sinai, saying” actually is referring in the plain meaning of Scripture to both the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. I am thus concerned with a literary question of the connection from a moral and spiritual point of view between the Sabbatical and Jubilee years and the revelation on mount Sinai. I want to suggest that the Sabbatical and Jubilee years actually represent the very essence of the revelation on mount Sinai by virtue of their being Sabbath years – as the Sabbath is an integral element of the revelation on mount Sinai.
Both the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year are forms of a Sabbath. The Sabbatical year is every seventh year, and is to be “a Sabbath unto the Lord” (Leviticus 25, 2) in which the land is not to be worked and is given rest. It is to be a time of equality in which all are entitled to the produce of the land. The Jubilee is every 50th year, and is to be a time of liberty (Leviticus 25, 10) in which Hebrew slaves receive liberty, all landed property that had been sold returns to its original owner and there is a Sabbath rest for the land (Leviticus 25, 10-11).
The Sabbath is an integral element of the revelation on mount Sinai in two senses. One sense is that the Sabbath in the Biblical conception is the sign of the covenant of Moses between God and the Jewish people established on mount Sinai. The other sense is that the Sabbath is the only commandment of a ritual nature of the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments) as the essence of the revelation on mount Sinai.
The ultimate purpose of the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant of Moses on mount Sinai is revealed in a passage that stands out in the Bible (Exodus 31, 14-17) – “You shall observe the Sabbath for it is holy unto you…It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased (from work) and rested (literally was refreshed)”. The Sabbath according to this passage is a sign, and it is a sign of the covenant of Moses as reflected in the verse immediately following the passage (Exodus 31 18) – “And He gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon mount Sinai, the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God”.
There are two covenants between God and the Jewish people in the Bible – the covenant of Abraham of which the sign is circumcision (Genesis 17, 11) and the covenant of Moses of which the sign is the Sabbath (Exodus 31, 17). These two covenants represent the two fundamental elements of Judaism as a religion in the sense of a way of life of the Jewish people – the covenant of Moses is the element of Judaism as a way of life, and the covenant of Abraham is the element of peoplehood (as Abraham is the spiritual father of the Jewish people). These two covenants in the Biblical conception are united in that the essence of Judaism and of being a descendant of Abraham is morality. The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”, and the essence of being a descendent of Abraham is reflected in the verse (Genesis 18, 19) in which God says “For I have known him (Abraham), to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice”. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel, if divided in the middle, literally means righteous of God – and, the Jewish people then are to be a people devoted to a life of righteousness.
If we return to the passage in which the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant of Moses, the Sabbath is to be a time of spiritual rest (literally refreshment) in imitation of God who in the Biblical account of creation ceased from creative work and rested (Exodus 31, 17) – “on the seventh day He ceased and rested (literally was refreshed)”. The Hebrew term (וינפש) translated as rest comes from a root that is often inadequately translated as soul – however, in the Biblical conception, the term refers not to the soul in distinction to the body, as the Biblical conception is holistic and not dualistic, but to the soul in the sense of a person who has both body and soul with the soul being the essence of human life.
Thus, the rest and refreshment of the Sabbath is both of a physical and spiritual nature – but, the essence of Sabbath rest and refreshment is an inner spiritual experience of deep spiritual fulfillment and joy. On the Sabbath in traditional Judaism we are forbidden to be preoccupied with ourselves, and we are forbidden to be fearful, worried, anxious, sad, angry or upset in any way – the Sabbath is to be a time of complete fulfillment and joy as written in our traditional Sabbath afternoon prayers “a day of rest and holiness…a rest of love and generosity, a rest of truth and faithfulness, a rest of peace and serenity and tranquility and security, a perfect rest…”. The essence of the Sabbath is a time when we refrain from creative work and doing as a means in order to attain the spiritual experience of being in an inner spiritual state of complete fulfillment and joy.
Regarding the Sabbath as a ritual commandment – the holiness of the Sabbath is very different in nature than that of the Tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites as a center of ritual worship in their wanderings in the wilderness, or the ancient Temple of Jerusalem that replaced the Tabernacle. The holiness of the Tabernacle as a physical structure is of place or space, and thus of a physical and material nature. The main form of ritual practice in the Tabernacle, as the center of ritual worship in the ancient Israelite culture, was sacrificial offerings – especially animal sacrifices. Such ritual practice as sacrificial offerings is of a very physical and material nature. The holiness of the Sabbath, by contrast, is of time and is of a spiritual nature – every seventh day is a holy day in the Biblical conception. Sacrifices are a central subject of the Book of Leviticus – but, in the tablets representing the essence of the revelation on mount Sinai, sacrificial offerings are completely absent. Strikingly, the Sabbath is the only commandment of the ten statements of a ritual nature.
The essence of the revelation on mount Sinai is the same as the revelation of the very name of God (YHVH) to Moses in the story of the burning bush. The essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush is that God demands morality. The great revolution of the Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the story of the burning bush and in the story of the revelation on mount Sinai.
In the story of the burning bush, God reveals God’s nature to Moses as a God of history as opposed to a power of nature (as in the pagan conception of gods as powers of nature) – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). God, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.
The opening verse of the ten statements, as the essence of the revelation on mount Sinai, is shocking – “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. The Bible opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the great revolution of the Bible is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion. From the Biblical account of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe.
The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected not only in the story of the burning bush but also in the opening statement of the ten statements. In the opening of the ten statements, God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel (as a God of revelation and redemption) in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality – and, this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be morality. Immediately following this opening statement of the ten statements come the moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.
The commandment to observe the Sabbath in the ten statements is the only statement among the ten statements that involves a ritual practice. However, the emphasis regarding observance of the Sabbath in the ten statements is upon the moral and social consequences of the practice – rest, once a week, physically and spiritually, for the entire society, including women, children, slaves and animals. Incidentally, even into the 20th century in Europe and the United States people, including women and children, worked in factories seven days a week. The Bible several thousand years ago prescribed a Sabbath rest once a week for everyone including slaves and animals.
Indeed, the very essence of the Sabbath is not its ritual aspects in terms of practice, but the moral and spiritual ideals, which the Sabbath expresses. The term Sabbath (שבת) literally means to stop or cease, and the essence of the Sabbath from a legal point of view is the prohibition of creative work (מלאכה) in imitation of God ceasing on the 7th day from the creative work of creating the universe in the opening Biblical account of creation. The prohibition of creative work does not appear in the opening Biblical account of creation, but the concept of creative work does appear in the story (Genesis 2, 2) – “And on the seventh day God finished His work (מלאכתו) which He had made, and He ceased (וישבת) on the seventh day from all His work (מלאכתו) which He had made”.
By the way, not all work is prohibited on the Sabbath according to Jewish law – only creative work based upon the concept of creative work in the opening Biblical account of creation. For example, if one moves a heavy piece of furniture on the Sabbath, even though this is clearly a form of work or exertion, this does not constitute creative work that is prohibited on the Sabbath. However, if one lights a match, which really involves no work or exertion, this is a form of creative work prohibited on the Sabbath.
The meaning of the concept of creative work, in the plain meaning of Scripture, is learned from the opening Biblical account of the creation of the universe. The central message of the opening account of creation is, in my view, the idea of the repair of the world (תיקון עולם), which is a central, moral concept of the Jewish tradition. The term repair of the world does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but there are very deep roots of the idea in the opening account of creation. After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the creative power to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread. After God creates the entire universe according to the Biblical account, the Bible says (Genesis 2, 3) “because on it (the 7th day) He ceased from all His work which God created to do” – God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair in which there is what to do for the human being (the human being is to repair and improve the world). So, it is clear that in the plain meaning of Scripture, creative work is unique to the human being created in the image of God involving transformation and improvement of nature.
Thus, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years as forms of a Sabbath are intimately connected to the revelation on mount Sinai of which the Sabbath is an integral element. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years, as forms of a Sabbath, express such moral and spiritual ideals as freedom and equality that are of the essence of the revelation on mount Sinai – as God is depicted in the story of the revelation on mount Sinai as a God who demands morality.