Vayakhel: Keep Shabbos or Else!

Shabbos is so beautiful and peaceful. Does it need a death penalty to be enforced?

Table for Five: Vayakhel


Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. -Ex. 35:2


Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University

The owners of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan own the land on which contains 50th street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. That street is open to the public every day during the year except Christmas, when the owners of Rockefeller Center close it to reassert their property rights to the land. The Sabbath is like that: God creates and owns the whole world (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalms 24:1; 100:3).

As the Owner, God gives us license to use the world for our purposes six days out of seven, but on the seventh day God reasserts God’s ownership of the world and demands that we cease using it for our purposes. This assures that work, as important and valued as it is in the Jewish tradition, does not become our idol, the center of our lives and the only thing we care about.

Instead the Sabbath reminds us that we need to recognize that God, family, and community need to be essential parts of our lives. To use an image suggested by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, on the Sabbath we are like painters who step back from our painting to gain perspective on what the painting of our lives is now and what it should become in the week ahead.

We may not physically die if we do not do that kind of reassessment and reconnection with those near and dear to us each week, but we do indeed die morally, psychologically, and spiritually if we let work rule our lives completely.


Kari Gila Bookbinder-Sacks, LCSW Case Manager, Chai Lifeline/ Therapist, meaningfulbeingtherapy.org.

Dedicated to my loving Father, Meir Hirsch ben Hashya.

If a person standing in the opulent presence of a king turns his attention away, he will surely forfeit his life. What a foolish mistake to make at such a fateful moment. As children of the King of Kings, we too, at times, diverge from our life’s purpose, losing touch with our inner light. Fortunately, Our King — Who is also a compassionate, forgiving Father — is always there to turn to when we need to return to ourselves.

In this verse – between the first Yom Kippur and the building of the Sanctuary – Hashem gives us a loving ‘wink’, as if to say: “My children, don’t make the mistake of forfeiting your spiritual life by getting lost in the darkness of the workaday week. Rest and renew yourself with Me on Shabbos, and your soul will remain ignited.” Isn’t it wondrous that the words Shabbat and Teshuva (return, atonement) share the same Hebrew letters! Shabbat reconnects us to our true selves, giving us pause for the important questions: “Who am I?” and “What am I living for?” If we journey through this wonderful, whirling world, mindful of Our King who always has open arms for us, we are truly living! Shabbos is a window to our Inner Royalty as individuals and a community, inspiring us forward with renewed integrity, purpose and joy!

Thank you, G-d, for the Torah and the ‘Divine Winks’ which make life worth living.


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom

Most Torah commentators read this as part of the context of our instructions for building the Mishkan. For even something as significant as the construction of the Mishkan, Shabbat must still take precedence. This paradigm of six days of work and one day of rest is crucial for us. Most focus on the uniqueness of our Shabbat customs, but we can also focus on the extraordinary accomplishment of our work. In constructing our new sovereign nation-state, our founding thinkers grasped both aspects of this relationship.

One of the themes of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State and Altneuland is his vision for the industrious ingenuity of the Jewish People who return to the Land of Israel to build our society. One of Ahad Ha’am’s most famous quotes remain, “More than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.” Much like Zionism lives between these two incredible thinkers, so too does the Jewish Tradition reside within this powerful notion of a calendar. For six days we should work, and not just any work – extraordinary tasks like building the Mishkan, writing literature, curing disease. Then we must rest, and not just any rest – a unique rest with family, community, eating, drinking… and did I mention Challah?

For in the end, we will have the most holy accomplishment and Godliness will dwell amongst us all. This is how we built the Mishkan, and how we built the State of Israel. This is not a strategy. This is simply who we are.


Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

The elephant in the room is why do I have to die if I don’t keep Shabbos? It sounds so primitive and vengeful, unless the key to my existence is hiding somewhere in the idea of Shabbos.

Shabbos is biblical code for a relationship with God, which is the whole reason of our being created. The Torah is saying that I’m not living unless I unplug from the grid and refrain from all creative human actions once a week. By eliminating worldly distractions, my Creator will become apparent to me and I will regain my true self in the ensuing calm. And is there a fate worse than death? How about ignoring the opportunity to realize the purpose of our existence until it is too late? A forfeited life, a self-imposed death sentence. Yikes!

It’s almost impossible to be put to death by a Jewish court of law for not keeping the Shabbos. The judicial requirements are too exacting to be fulfilled in the real world. So the Talmud says that it is God instead Who imposes the death sentence at some point. Hmmm. But are you not willing to die for something? Your love, your children, your values? Encased in Shabbos is the truest version of Life itself, a gift awaiting our discovery.

Have no worries. Torah promises your world will be waiting for you, intact, 24 hours later. In the meantime you will have lived your reason for being and added additional meaning to your life. Isn’t that a deal we shouldn’t refuse?


Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell, MHL, MAEd. Senior Rabbi, ahavattorahla.org

Traditionally I talk to my siblings every Friday before Shabbat. We catch up and bless one another with a peaceful Shabbat. Last week my brother sounded very tired. I asked him if he is ok? He took a deep breath and slowly said, “You know, Shabbat is a GENIUS idea”. “Really?” I asked jokingly. “Yes, he answered, “We create time to rest and see family and friends. Thank God we have a Shabbat every week.” He was 100% right!

Our Hasidic masters teach us to look at our verse carefully. It describes our weekday work as a passive effort, “six days work shall be done,” not “six days you shall do work,” meaning, we know that our work, our source of sustenance is only a vessel through which we receive God’s blessings. We need to stay vigilant on the source of our blessings.

One of the ways to do so is to carve out time. Can one really carve out time? Yes, if we choose to! By ceasing work on Shabbat we are carving out a sacred space to receive and enjoy. We create a certain balance for reflection and an opportunity to connect and create space for God to dwell among us. We create a space dedicated to Shabbat – the eternal gift to humanity which is qualitatively different for each one of us.

May we all be blessed to experience the ah-ha moment, my brother had, realizing the important blessings of Shabbat in our lives. Amen.


With thanks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Kari Gila Bookbinder-Sacks, Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, and Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.




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