Violating Other People’s Shabbat, by Yosef Kanefsky

January 26, 2018

Several months ago I decided that there was a topic that deserved our attention, and that a thoughtful communal discussion about it could make a positive material difference on the quality of our lives.  I was just waiting for an open Shabbat. So here goes:

We’ll start with a Biblical verse that is so familiar to us, that we couldn’t imagine its being interpreted in any other way.  “Sheshet yamim ta’avod…” for six days you shall work, “v’asita kol m’lachtecha”, and do all manner of work. And on the seventh day etc.  Pretty straightforward. Yet, the Mechilta (20:9), an ancient Midrash Halacha reads the middle phrase a little differently: “Sheshet yamim…” for six days you shall work, “V’asita kol m’lachtecha …” and you shall completely finish all your work. All of it! All done! An interesting read, which leads the Mechilta directly to the question:

וכי איפשר לו לאדם לעשות מלאכתו בששת ימים!?

Is that even possible?! Have you ever met anyone who arrived at candle lighting time on Friday afternoon and said, “Wow! I got everything done. There is nothing at all that I didn’t get too!”??  What does the Torah mean here? Which in turn leads the Mechilta directly to the punchline that it had been wanting to get to from the outset:

אלא שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה.

What the Torah is telling us is to rest on Shabbat as if all our work is completed. As if it’s all done. With the phrase “v’asita kol m’lachtecha….” the Torah is describing for us the quality and nature of Shabbat rest. “ שבות ממחשבת עבודה , the Mechilta continues, “don’t even think about work.”  For while it is through refraining from 39 particular acts of melacha that we observe Shabbat technically, it is through completely clearing our minds from our work that we observe Shabbat essentially.   

The Mechilta’s teaching is echoed in a great story on Shabbat 150b:

מעשה בחסיד אחד שנפרצה לו פרץ בתוך שדהו, ונמלך עליה לגודרה, ונזכר ששבת הוא, ונמנע אותו חסיד ולא גדרה. ונעשה לו נס, ועלתה בו צלף וממנה היתה פרנסתו ופרנסת אנשי ביתו

There was one a Hasid, a pious person. At some point during the week a breach opened in the fence surrounding his field. He happened to be walking by there on Shabbat, noticed the breach and thought to himself, “Right after Shabbat I’ll run out to Home Depot and buy that thing, and …..”, and suddenly he thought to himself, “What am I doing? Why am I even thinking about this today? It’s Shabbat!” And he decided right then and there, as a sort of tikkun, that he was never going to fix that breach. And then God intervened, and caused a caper bush to grow in the breach, and the Hasid became the caper berry baron of the Middle East, and his family was supported for generations…. That’s the story.

What’s remarkable here is that just lines earlier the Talmud had concluded that while speaking about work on Shabbat was forbidden, merely thinking about work was technically permissible. And yet, the Talmud decided to give the Hasid and his story the last word – literally.  Why? Because the Hassid understood the essence. His story illustrates what Shabbat is ultimately about.

As does a great animated video that I saw 30- something years ago – and which – God bless YouTube I was able to find again, this past Thursday night.  The video opens on a Friday morning along a busy, commercial street, and very strikingly all of the characters – instead of having heads, have some oversized work implement sprouting from their necks. One character is calculator-head, another is typewriter head, the car mechanic is wrench-head, the dentist is giant tooth head. The video then pans to an office clock, as it spins toward late Friday afternoon, at which point calculator-head turns to typewriter head and says, “I think we can finish this next week”. And the he says the magical words “Shabbat Shalom”. And instantly both his head and typewriter head’s head become normal human heads. And as he leaves the office and wishes Shabbat Shalom to each of the characters he had encountered on the street earlier in the day, each one of their heads becomes a normal human head. This 30-something year old video has remained lodged in my memory because it’s such a great symbolic representation of what Shabbat is intended to be. One day of the week when we are NOT “what we do”; we are simply “who we are”.  שבות כאלו מלאכתך עשויה – Pretend that all your work is done. So that we can get our actual heads back for a day.

To be clear:  the Jewish tradition has nothing against work. L’hefech, there are actually rabbinic sources which understand the very same phrase “sheshet yamim…” as constituting a mitzva. “Six days you should work!”     “אהוב את המלאכה”, “love your work!”, we’re taught in Pirkei Avot. But we urgently need to take one day every week to not be what we do, but to simply be who we are.

There is, of course an unsettling inference that have no choice but to draw from this. And that is that when we can’t free ourselves, when we fail to fully turn our heads back into our plain human heads, we are failing – on an important conceptual level – to observe Shabbat. We are in fact, being מחלל שבת ;  we are …. violating Shabbat. Which would all by itself qualify as a worthwhile teaching for this morning, except there’s something even more important that I want to say.


We all struggle in our personal performance of certain mitzvot. But even as we are struggling ourselves, the last thing we’d ever want to do is to impair someone else’s ability to perform that mitzvah.  And yet, when it comes to this aspect of Shabbat observance we are guilty of doing exactly this, even sometimes right here in shul.  We actually violate someone else’s Shabbat.  It can very innocent, as we ask a friend whom we haven’t seen in a week how that big project went this week. Sometimes, because we are dealing with a particular issue or matter, we seek out the professional opinion of one of our fellow parishioners, as we both eat chulent at Kiddush. The worst of it though is when we engage our friends who are our children’s teachers, or their school principals, or lay leaders at the school, in conversations about specific things that are going on in our child’s classroom or in the lunchroom, or in the board room. We’re blowing their heads off! We are violating their Shabbat when we do these things.

The saddest thing that I ever hear is a Jewish professional telling me that he or she is not coming to shul anymore, because it’s just not a safe space for their observance of Shabbat. Let’s do better. Let’s be better.

We’ll conclude the Aruch HaShulchan’s codification of these laws (Siman 306)

ולא התירו חכמים ההרהור אלא כשאין לו טרדת הלב ודאגה בהרהור, כגון שעסקיו הולכין בטוב בהצלחה ובלא פיזור הנפש. אבל כשיש לו על ידי ההרהור דאגה וטרדת הלב – אסור, שהרי אין לך ביטול עונג שבת גדול מזה.

ואיתא במכילתא: ‘ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך’ – שתהא כל מלאכתך בעיניך עשוי בהגיע שבת קדש, שהרי אין אדם יכול לעשות כל מלאכתו בשבוע אחד, אלא יראה אדם בכל שבת כא(י)לו מלאכתו עשויה, ואין לך עונג גדול מזה

The Sages permitted thinking about our work on Shabbat only when these thoughts do not produce anxiety and heaviness of heart. But otherwise such thoughts are forbidden, for there is no greater negation of “oneg Shabbat”, the delight of Shabbat, than this.

And as the Mechilta teaches, you should feel as if all of your work is done, for there is no delight greater than this.

Let us all delight in our Shabbat. Let us, for a day, be who we are, not what we do. And even more importantly, let us become the keepers of our bothers’ and sisters’ Oneg Shabbat.