Shamor and Zakhor: Competing Frames for Shabbat in the Torah and Today

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Parashat Yitro

Every Friday night, Jews around the world welcome Shabbat in song with the following poetic line:

שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד
השמיענו אל המיוחד


“Guard”/Shamor and “Be mindful of”/Zakhor in one utterance
The Unique God caused us to hear


This opening line of the poem Lekhah Dodi, familiar to so many, was written by R. Shlomo HaLevi Alkabets, the great kabbalistic poet of 16th century Tzfat. What does it mean? As a child, I always learned this line as an attempt to harmonize two conflicting articulations of the same idea, the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus (in this week’s parashah) and Deuteronomy. The Torah presents the Ten Commandments as a historical utterance by God to the Jewish people: How can there be two different versions of this speech in the Torah? To this, the tradition answers:  The two versions were spoken in stereo sound, with God simultaneously saying both.

A deeper investigation, however, reveals that this line packs an even greater punch.  Like most lines in our prayers, the first line of Lekhah Dodi has an intertext, another source on which it is based and from which it draws linguistic and conceptual inspiration. In this case, the intertext is found in the Mekhilta, a commentary on the book of Exodus drawing on traditions from the sages of the early first millennium of the common era. 

This passage features four examples of verses in the Torah that were “said at once”, the first of which refers to the simultaneous utterance of זכור and שמור at Mount Sinai. But a look at the complete list reveals that we are dealing here not with conflicting articulations, but with conflicting ideas and laws. The text begins: 

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל יתרו - מסכתא דבחדש פרשה ז
"זכור" ו"שמור", שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד.


Mekhilta of R. Yishmael, Yitro, BaHodesh #7
“Be mindful of” and “Guard”, both were said at once.


But then it continues with three other examples of pairs of laws in the Torah that conflict with one another. Here is one of the other examples:

"מחלליה מות יומת" ו"ביום השבת שני כבשים", שניהם בדיבור אחד נאמרו.


“Those who desecrate it shall be put to death” and “On the Shabbat day, sacrifice two lambs”, both were said at once.


Exodus decrees the death penalty for any violation of Shabbat. The Torah explicitly denotes burning a fire on Shabbat as one such desecration, and rabbinic tradition understands slaughtering animals as another. And yet, Numbers mandates the sacrifice of two lambs in the Temple each Shabbat, an act which involves both slaughter and the use of fire! The Mekhilta asserts: These two conflicting commands were nonetheless uttered at once.

In each of the cases the Mekhilta addresses, the conflicting categories must make room for one another, as one command is an exception to the other. This fuller context makes us realize that something similar is going on with זכור and שמור as well. What is the conflict here and how do these two commands coexist?

We can uncover the deeper meaning of the Mekhilta by recognizing that the words זכור and שמור here signify much more than themselves. They are metonymic terms for the Torah’s two very different presentations of Shabbat and the reasons given for its observance. In fact, they stand for two dueling conceptions as to what Shabbat is all about, two different reasons for guarding and being mindful of Shabbat. (You can see much more detailed discussion and more examples in the longer essay).


I.שמור: Preserving human freedom and social justice

The שמור model is presented in Devarim. After issuing the command to guard Shabbat by refraining from melakhah, the Torah provides the following rationale:

דברים ה:טו
וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְקוָֹק אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה עַל־כֵּן צִוְּךָ יְקוָֹק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת:


Devarim 5:15
And so that you will be mindful that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God took you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to perform the sabbath day.


According to this version of the Ten Commandments, Shabbat is about taking home the lessons of being a slave and making sure that the economically disadvantaged get a chance to rest. Shabbat here emerges from Jewish history. We have firsthand experience of a culture of incessant work; when God redeemed us from that state, we took on a corollary obligation: Never again to create a culture that economically enslaves people without a break. 

This rationale calls us away from the labors of the week so that we can enjoy rest and bodily rejuvenation. We would be driven to maximize pleasure, engaging in activities that emphasize our freedom, such as eating, drinking, sleeping and otherwise experiencing the ענג/pleasure of Shabbat.

This approach was seized upon by a number of Second Temple Jews, including those who became the ancestors of Christianity. A number of passages from the Christian Bible give us a good sense of some of the competing visions of Shabbat in the Jewish community at that time. As alternate interpretive paths not followed by later rabbis, these sources help us understand just what was at stake for our tradition in defining the essence of Shabbat and its practices.

In passages from the Gospels of Mark and John, Jesus berates the Jews/Pharisees for refusing to let his hungry disciples pick grain from the field on Shabbat, something they consider to be forbidden by the Torah. He marshals Scripture to his cause, but then he makes a broader point about Shabbat itself: It is intended to serve human beings, not to make them miserable by their service to it. This is no antinomian claim; this is an argument about the essence of Shabbat, an argument grounded in the שמור model. If the purpose of Shabbat is to provide rest to the weary and to free the oppressed, Jesus seems to have reasoned: What possible good could come of making people go hungry on account of Shabbat restrictions? Jesus channels the שמור model exclusively, allowing for dramatic physical manipulation of the world—plucking grain from its source—in order that his students not be uncomfortable. Again, this approach was decidedly rejected by the rabbis.


II.זכור: Honoring God and creation

Let us now turn to the other presentation of Shabbat, in our parashah.  There, the rationale for the same basic command is quite different:

שמות כ:יא
כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְקוָֹק אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יְקוָֹק אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ:


Shemot 20:11
...for in six days the Lord made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and sanctified it.


The זכור model offers a very different reason for observing Shabbat. According to this version of the Ten Commandments, Shabbat is an act of imitating God’s behavior on the seventh day of creation. It does not emerge from Jewish, or even human, history; it predates it. Shabbat is an opportunity for human beings to be like God and to frame their relationship to the physical world of creation in which they live.

By imitating God’s stopping and resting, we also acknowledge that we did not create the world, and therefore do not have the right to dominate it without limits. Creation is from God; it is perhaps, at least in part, for humans, but it is not simply the plaything of humans to do with what they will. Shabbat reminds us of our place in the divine world that graciously contains us.

Josephus reports that the Jews of Jerusalem followed this rationale, since they “are accustomed to rest on every seventh day on which times they make no use of their arms, nor meddle with husbandry, nor take care of any affairs of life, but spread out their hands in their holy places, and pray till the evening.” According to this view, Shabbat is a day for God, set aside for spiritual matters.

This approach is perhaps no better illustrated in the Second Temple period than in the Dead Sea Scrolls community. One scroll reports the law, “But should any man fall into water or (fire), let him not be pulled out with the aid of a ladder or rope or (some such) utensil.” Another also illustrates this sharply, claiming that, “If a person falls into water on Shabbat, one should extend him his garment but not pick up any tool.” These examples show a clear allergy to the use of tools on shabbat. Even when the tool would be taken in order to lift someone out of a pit, it is forbidden to use it. This prohibition flows from a fervent obedience to the זכור model: Tools—even ones like ladders that don’t even transitively do anything—represent the essence of human domination and manipulation of the world. There is hardly a more meaningful way of abjuring control of the natural world than by withdrawing from tools, figuratively placing oneself back in prehistoric times.


III.    Rabbinic synthesis: Listing to the entire Torah 

The Rabbinic approach to the tension between זכור and שמור is to embrace it. The Mekhilta we began with acknowledges the warring visions of Shabbat that can be inspired by Creation, on the one hand, and Exodus, on the other. But the Mekhilta and the rest of Rabbinic tradition insist on an unshakeable commitment to the coexistence of זכור and שמור, both of which were uttered, at once, by the same Living God, בדיבור אחד.

This has impacts today in many areas of the halakhah of Shabbat, for example in מוקצה, the restrictions surrounding handling objects and tools. Many formulations of מוקצה in the history of halakhah, often driven by the שמור frame, try to anchor these laws in concern for physical labor—don’t pick up a hammer lest you use it to build a door. But these often seem forced, and lead these restrictions to be seen as mere Rabbinic “fences around the law” that can be waived in the case of illness or other pressing concerns. But when we understand these laws as derivative details of an even more robust זכור model, they are important guardians of a humble posture towards creation and human creativity on Shabbat.

This framework of שמור and זכור perhaps can help contemporary Jews be united by Shabbat rather than divided by it. I recall once seeing a young boy, raised in an observant home, talking with his grandmother, who did not observe Shabbat, on a Saturday afternoon. It was a warm day, and the grandmother asked her grandson if he would go outside and pick a grapefruit off the tree. The boy responded sheepishly that it was Shabbat and he could not do it. She responded with a puzzled look and a dismissive tone: “But that’s not work!”  The boy simply shrugged.

But now let’s see this through our שמור and זכור frameworks. The grandmother was instinctively deploying a שמור-model. Though not observant herself, she clearly had an intuitive respect for a Shabbat observance grounded in the command to remember the Exodus. Refrain from “work”, in the sense of economic enslavement and participation in the office culture, were transparent concepts to her. More opaque to her—and to the grandson who had no tools or vocabulary to explain it—were the restrictions around picking a single fruit off of a tree for pleasure and enjoyment. Indeed, the שמור paradigm would seem to allow for, if not recommend, such an action in the name of עונג שבת! What she needed to hear was a response that evoked the זכור model as another defining factor of traditional Shabbat observance. True, nothing of the mythic fabric of the Exodus-inspired command would have been torn by the picking of that grapefruit. But the act would have been a profound rupture in the spiritual practice of imitating the God who stopped creating on the seventh day.

I suspect this sort of vocabulary would have helped the boy feel better about himself in that moment, and would perhaps have engendered respect from his grandmother’s end as well. In any event, we should acknowledge that the tension in these types of interactions is nothing more than the channeling of an ancient balancing act intended to capture the Torah’s multivocality around Shabbat. That would go a long way to increasing both commitment and understanding.

When we recite Lekhah Dodi on Friday nights, we should redouble our commitment to listening to the entire Torah. Unlike various groups in Second Temple Judaism, Hazal, our Sages of blessed memory, refused to allow one of the Torah’s messages about Shabbat to trample the other. May our conversations about Shabbat always work to preserve this ethic of בדבור אחד נאמרו, gleaning wisdom from the competing models of זכור and שמור, as well as from the symphony of voices that make up this ever relevant area of halakhah.