Yitro: Shamor and zakhor, Shabbat, and the world of work
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Yitro: Shamor and zakhor, Shabbat, and the world of work

Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI, Conservative

This week, I’d like to reflect on some ways that the fourth commandment, which teaches that Shabbat is a day of rest, also helps us frame how we think about our weekday work.

There are two different versions in the Torah of the Ten Commandments, and the most striking contrast between them pertains to Shabbat. The first version appears in this week’s parashah (Yitro) and begins with the word zakhor, “remember.” The second version, from the Book of Deuteronomy, starts the Shabbat commandment with shamor, “observe.” Both versions enjoin us to engage in work six days a week. On the seventh day, we are asked to refrain from work, devoting the time to sanctification and blessing. The essential difference between the two versions is the identification of each with a different event in the Torah. According to the zakhor version, we observe Shabbat to remember the Creation, when God spent six days forming the world as we know it. Then God rested, dedicating the seventh day for blessing and for holiness; it is our mandate to do the same.

In the shamor version, by contrast, Shabbat is not connected to the Creation but to the Redemption. For Deuteronomy, Shabbat reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt, until God bestowed upon us the grace of liberation. For that reason, we refrain from work and sanctify the seventh day, extending rest as well to all who dwell in our households. Thus, the shamor version casts Shabbat as a celebration of freedom.

What are the implications of understanding Shabbat as a memorial to the Creation or to the Redemption? The zakhor version, by asking us to think of God as Creator of the world, invites us to consider the value of our own creative endeavors. No matter how imaginative or productive we are during the week, we are asked to take a day off from creative activity each Shabbat, and shift our full attention to matters of the spirit. The shamor version, by invoking the image of the freed slave, suggests that our weekly work does not always make use of our talents and interests. Our daily tasks may be boring, repetitive, or simply very stressful. We may have so much work that we cannot keep up with its demands, or we may not have enough work to be able to meet our material needs. Work can be oppressive. The shamor version recognizes a deep need that we all have — and deserve each week: to relax and enjoy at least a taste of freedom.

Regardless of how we feel about our work, the Torah bids us to take a complete break from it each Shabbat. The zakhor version of the fourth commandment, by invoking God’s blessing (“God blessed the day”), invites us to appreciate our God-given gifts. The shamor version, by mandating freedom for the entire household (even animals!), asks us to be purveyors of freedom to others. It is good for us to be mindful of those responsibilities on Shabbat. Yet in order to live up to them most fully, we must carry them with us into the work week as well.

According to an ancient midrash, God uttered the two versions simultaneously (zakhor ve-shamor be-dibbur ehad ne’em’ru); the line is paraphrased in the first stanza of lekha dodi of the Friday night liturgy. The midrash points to the interdependence of shamor and zakhor, and suggests that the essential ideas of the two must somehow be integrated into an ideal whole.

The combination of the two messages is symbolically portrayed in three of our Friday night rituals for the home. In most households, it is customary to light two Shabbat candles, which the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh) associates with the duality of shamor and zakhor. At the table, the kiddush makes the association explicit, declaring that Shabbat is both “a memorial to Creation” (zikkaron le-ma’asei vereshit) and “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt” (zekher li-tzi’at mitzrayim). We enjoy the beautiful sight of glowing candles, hold a full goblet in the hand during kiddush and then drink from the cup of blessing. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, of blessed memory, notes that the two challah loaves on the table also stand for shamor and zakhor. Thus, in a multi-sensory way, the home rituals for welcoming Shabbat team up to concretize both understandings of the weekly cycle of work and rest.

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