A Shabbat of Your Own

Dena Weiss

Parashat Bereishit

On the seventh day, God rested.

We are told about God’s Shabbat because it provides the model for the Shabbat that we enact and experience. If we look closely at this description, we can see beyond it to an instruction for how we can make our own Shabbat and how to make Shabbat ours. It demonstrates how Shabbat functions for and within each individual person, as what makes Shabbat unique and beloved is that each person’s Shabbat is truly and entirely their own.

Of God’s Shabbat the Torah writes,

בראשית ב:א-ג

:א) וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל צְבָאָם
:ב) וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
:ג) וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת


Bereishit 2:1-3

1) The heavens and the earth were finished and all their array.
2) On the seventh day God completed all of His work that He had made.
He rested on the seventh day from all of His work that He had made.
3) God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for on it God rested from all of His work that God had created to do.


Two aspects of this description seem out of place, but each is critical to understanding what it means not only to keep Shabbat, but to actually make Shabbat. First, the text refers repeatedly to melakhah ,“His work,” when it could have simply said ha-melakhah, “the work.” Why do we need to know that this labor belongs to God? The second feature is that the Torah always qualifies the work as something that God had made or created in order to do. These strange phrases, “His work that He had made” or “His work that He had created to do” appear three times in just two verses. What is “work created to do” and how is it different from the work that God had made? There is something inelegant about this phrase, but also something inviting.

I would like to suggest that these verses talk about this labor in two different ways because they are describing two different kinds of work. The “work that He had made” refers to the work of creating the world. This is the work of dividing and separating, of speaking and breathing life. However, the expression “work that God created to do” refers to an entirely different aspect of this labor. Work created to do is a very apt, precise, and richly descriptive phrase that captures not the work itself, but rather its compressed timeline. It does not refer generally to the labor of constructing and completing the world, but to the endeavor of getting the world ready in just six days, to ensuring that creation is complete by the week’s end so that God will be able to rest on Shabbat.

This is how Shabbat operates. The restfulness of Shabbat is created through additional labor. By the time the sun goes down on Friday night, food for the next day must be already prepared. This is accomplished by doing extra melakhah, extra work, before Shabbat. This extra pressure is labor that you make for yourself. Like God’s work that He created to do, you create a heavier load, a more stressful Thursday night and a more hectic Friday afternoon, in order to get a respite on Shabbat. More work in the form of planning and preparation is paid back in the experience of relaxation. It is this contrivance that is asher bara la'asot, work that we create in order to do. The more frantic the Friday afternoon, the more serene the Friday night.

This is reflected in the experience of receiving the man, the sustenance that God provided Benei Yisrael in the wilderness. According to Shemot 16:22-27, on Friday, the heavens rained down an extra portion of this bread, lehem mishneh, since Benei Yisrael would not be permitted to collect their daily portion on Shabbat itself. We mark this miracle by having double challot, lehem mishneh, at our Friday night meal. This is a symbolic representation of what Shabbat looked like in the wilderness and a reflection of what the well-orchestrated Shabbat still achieves. These challot manifest the idea that though we are no longer receiving a double portion of food from God on Friday and putting in the time and attention to collect it, through keeping Shabbat we create and recreate the experience of the one day when we do not need to go out and labor, one day free of financial striving, one day where we experience the pleasure and security of having enough. This state is achieved through our own efforts, but it feels like something we receive. 

Having enough on Shabbat is not about the act of not-working or even the act of resting; it is about not needing to go to work and feeling free from the obligation to create and provide. Shabbat doesn’t derive its sweetness only or even primarily from physical relaxation; the fullest Shabbat experience entails inhabiting a different mental, emotional, and spiritual place. A complete Shabbat entails setting down your psychological burdens next to your physical burdens. Shabbat is a time for allowing ourselves to live without worry and inhabit a space where everything has been taken care of. The heaven, the earth, and all their array are complete. The world and everything in it is very, very good. Achieving this is both miraculous and possible, and it too is based on a deeper understanding of the man.

The midrash of Shemot Rabbah 25:3 links two seemingly unconnected ideas in its description of how God provided man in the wilderness. It comments on the way that God distributes the man, with an open hand, and the miraculous variety of the taste of the man. While these two ideas are ostensibly distinct, this midrash intentionally combines them. First it teaches about the way that God caused the man to descend for the people,

שמות רבה כה:ג

(שמות טז, ד) הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם... בֹּא וּרְאֵה שֶׁלֹא כְמִדַּת הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִדַּת בָּשָׂר וָדָם, מִדַּת בָּשָׂר וָדָם כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַסְּפוֹג בְּיָדוֹ פּוֹתֵחַ יָדוֹ אֵין טִפָּה יוֹרֵד, קוֹפֵץ יָדוֹ הוּא מוֹרִיד מָיִם, אֲבָל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵינוֹ כֵן, הַסְּפוֹג בְּיָדוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים סה, י): פֶּלֶג אֱלֹהִים מָלֵא מָיִם... אִם עָצַר אֵין הַמַּיִם יוֹרְדִין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר... (דברים יא, יז): וְעָצַר אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָטָר, פּוֹתֵחַ יָדוֹ הַמָּטָר יוֹרֵד, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר... (תהלים קמה, טז) פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל חַי רָצוֹן


Shemot Rabbah 25:3

Behold I am raining bread from heaven upon you (Shemot 16:4)... Come and see that the manner of the Holy Blessed One is not like the manner of flesh and blood humans. For a human, when the sponge is in his hand, if he opens his hand, not a drop descends, if he clenches his hand he lowers water. But the Holy Blessed One is not like this. The sponge is in His hand as it says, God’s stream is full of water (Tehilim 65:10). If He holds back, the waters don’t descend, as it says... He will hold back the heavens and there will be no water (Devarim 11:17). When He opens His hand, the rain descends, as it says... Open your hand and satisfy the desire of all that lives (Tehilim 145:16).


The midrash uses this last verse to link the open-handedness of God with the variation of the taste of the man,

לְכָל חַי מָזוֹן אֵין כָּתוּב כָּאן, אֶלָּא לְכָל חַי רָצוֹן, שֶׁהוּא נוֹתֵן לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד רְצוֹנוֹ מַה שֶּׁהוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ, וְכֵן לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא נוֹתֵן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוךְ הוּא לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד כָּל מַה שֶּׁהוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ, וְאִם תָּמֵהַּ אַתָּה עַל הַדָּבָר, רְאֵה מֶה עָשָׂה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה שֶׁהוֹרִיד לָהֶם הַמָּן שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹ מִכָּל מִינֵי מַטְעַמִּים, וְהָיָה כָּל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל טוֹעֵם כָּל מַה שֶּׁהָיָה רוֹצֶה, שֶׁכֵּן כְּתִיב (דברים ב, ז): זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ לֹא חָסַרְתָּ דָּבָר, מַהוּ דָּבָר, כְּשֶׁהָיָה מִתְאַוֶּה לֶאֱכֹל דָּבָר וְהָיָה אוֹמֵר בְּפִיו אִלּוּלֵי הָיָה לִי פְּטָמָא אַחַת לֶאֱכֹל, מִיָּד הָיָה נַעֲשָׂה לְתוֹךְ פִּיו טַעַם פְּטָמָא. דָּבָר הָיוּ אוֹמְרִים וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עוֹשֶׂה רְצוֹנָם


[Open your hand and satisfy the desire of all that lives.] It doesn’t say mazon, food for all that lives, rather it says ratzon, the desire of all that lives. When He gives, it is to each individual according to his request. And similarly in the coming future, God will give each person what he requests. And if you are surprised about this matter, see what God did for Israel in this world when He lowered man for them, which had all different tastes in it. And each person would taste what he desired. So it is written, these forty years, God is with you, you lacked no thing (davar). What is davar? When he wanted to eat something and he would say with his mouth, “If I only had a fattened animal to eat!” [the man] would immediately take on the taste of fattened animal in his mouth. They would say one thing, davar, and God would do their desire.


The image of the human being squeezing the sponge points to the stress and effort that is required for us to extract our sustenance from this world. Our labor is a labor of pressure and tension. Eating the man, keeping Shabbat, is supposed to make us feel like we are eating in a different way, from God’s open hand. We are receptive and relaxed. We aren’t working and we aren’t feeling the pressure of work. In the ideal world that Shabbat represents, we are released from anxiety. We experience the true freedom of a moment in time when we can feel like everything is going to be ok, like everything already is okay.

The midrash connects this feeling of relaxation to the most miraculous feature of the man, the way its flavor conforms to the desires of the one who eats it. The man tastes different for every person. This points to the fact that in the physical world, Shabbat looks the same for you and me. We can observe the same laws, sing the same songs, eat identical meals. But, the fullest Shabbat is a highly individualized experience because the emotional quality of Shabbat, the psychological benefits of Shabbat, shift for each individual person. This is because the relaxation of Shabbat is characterized by the pressures that you release. If you are beset by financial worries, then the man tastes like financial security. If you are beset by illness, then the man tastes like health. If you are beset by uncertainty, then Shabbat tastes like confidence, the assurance that God exists, that you and your life have purpose, and that you are still growing.

The passage that describes God’s completing of the Creation that He created to do is a reflection and expression of this highly personal moment, when God set down His plans to inspire you to set down yours. This allows us to address our first question, of why the Torah uses the possessive in describing God’s work. The most divine Shabbat is not just rest from melakhah, from labor. It is a reprieve from melakhto— His labor, your labor, my labor. When we rest on Shabbat we release ourselves from our particular set of needs, worries, and longings. The relief that we feel is unique to us, and no one else shares in it. And the emotional, psychological, and spiritual labor that we do in order to achieve this feeling cannot be done for us by someone else. 

The two odd phrasings in our parashah—that God’s work is “created in order to do” and that God’s work belongs to Him exclusively—reflect two aspects of building Shabbat, the work that must be done to make Shabbat happen and the work that must be done to appreciate it and derive its benefits. First you take the concrete step of declaring, “I am not working today. I will not be taking care of this.” Then you take the imaginative leap of believing that there is nothing for you to take care of, nothing that you need to do, no reason for you to worry.

Just as God had to create the world because without His intervention the world would not exist, so too God needs to create Shabbat because, if He didn’t prepare it and didn’t prepare for it, it would not exist. This is equally true for us. If we don’t make something in the physical world, it will not exist. And if we don’t put the effort into our spiritual lives, sacrality will not happen.

God blessed Shabbat and sanctified it, and so do we. Shabbat doesn’t create itself. We create it and we benefit from it. The more we put into it and the harder we squeeze, the more we will extract when we let go.