Ki Tisa: Fourth Commandment

Remember Shabbat And Keep It Holy

What does it mean for a Jew to be “cut off” from his people?

Table for Five: Ki Tisa

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.

– Ex. 31:14

Rivkah Slonim, Director, Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life, Binghamton University

The sages have long puzzled the Biblical paradigm of “karet,” being “cut off,” indisputably the worst penalty meted out by the Torah. All agree that this is a punishment applied not by a human court but from Heaven. Some opine that karet means dying young, others assert it means dying without children. Many taught that karet refers to a spiritual excision, being torn asunder from God, differing only on how that is understood. There is even the opinion that the soul is completely destroyed!

But how is that even possible if God is everywhere and everything? Moreover, we each have an actual aspect of God within us. And God is eternal!

The Rebbe shines a completely different light on the notion of karet. He teaches that karet should (also, primarily?) be understood as the spiritual condition that allows for a Jew to engage in certain behaviors in the first place. To violate these axiomatic Biblical commandments a Jew has to be “cut off” from the teachings and instruction of God. Due to life’s circumstances (most often by no fault of their own), this Jew has been severed, truncated, torn away, from who and what a Jew truly is. But the most important thing to focus on is this truth: The inherent bond of a Jew and her/his Creator transcends observances or lack thereof. It is simply a matter of uncovering this eternal connection, one Shabbat candle at a time, one Shabbat meal at a time. Until karet is rendered obsolete.

David Porush, Student, teacher, author at davidporush.com

Erev Shabbat, Gaza, 12/22/23 – The sun seems small and distant. It is about to disappear over the scalloped silhouette of army tents. The sky is smeared by dun haze with a hint of dried blood. A hundred Israeli soldiers have taken time from battle to dance and sing. Some are wearing kippas and tallises. They are also in uniform, rifles slung over their shoulders. Their joy has a triumphal energy, though their war is perilous and its outcome far from certain.

They’re singing a verse from Psalms 29:

God’s voice splits flames of fire

God’s voice shakes the wilds;

God shakes the wilds of Kadesh

God’s voice makes the cows calve

and strips the forest

And in His palace

All speak His glory.

They’re only about fifty miles north of where the Israelites fleeing Egypt camped 3335 years ago in the same wilderness, Kadesh, scene of another great trial. Their song, so apt, folds Jewish history in on itself. Jews have awoken, again, to their task, their destiny.

“Have we ever had to go to more extremes to thwart evil? An entire civilization seeks to erase us and the Shabbat we’ve given to the world. The evil, knowing us better than we sometimes know ourselves, announced its intention when it barbarized us on a very holy Shabbat. It also roused the thundering voice of God to shake the wilderness.”

Our verse commands us to guard the Shabbat. These warriors give it new meaning.

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author of “Why, God, Why?”

By observing Shabbat, we affirm that the Creator chose the Jewish people as His nation and provided us with the means of being holy. Shabbat’s significance is such that the Torah considers its desecration a capital transgression, since it repudiates the centrality of Judaism. After the cessation of the Sanhedrin, the penalty remains “on the books,” for us to recognize the seriousness of its breach.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments, “Remember and Observe the Shabbat day to keep it holy,” refers to the negative prohibitions and the positive observances of Shabbat. G-d commanded both simultaneously to indicate that they are halves of one whole and both are integral to Shabbat experience.

Keeping Shabbat holy gives us a way to create Paradise on earth within our own home and community. By liberating ourselves from our enslavement to technology for the 25 hours of Shabbat, we enter an oasis in time in which we transition from the commonplace to the spiritual. Our consciousness is elevated as we focus on G-d, family, and Judaism’s spiritual values. We experience inner tranquility as we talk to G-d in prayer and find time for Torah study. Our table setting is elegant. Our conversations are calm as we get to know each other again. Even the food tastes better when spiced with the spirit of the Shabbat.

It has been said, “More than the Jew has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jew,” for Shabbat renews and recharges us spiritually and physically.

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

Imagine a table covered in white cloth, place settings, flowers, wine, and challah. Ready for Shabbat, this table raises warm memories of gatherings with family and friends, evenings of plentiful food, lively conversation, and soulful singing. But in cities around the world, from Tel Aviv to Rome, London, New York, and Los Angeles, such tables now speak of the unbearable pain of absence. Each reproduction of “The Empty Shabbat Table” originally set in what is now known as “Hostage Square” draws power from our new and visceral understanding of what it means for our loved ones to be “cut off” from our Sabbath table in the aftermath of October 7, 2023, the Black Sabbath.

The Talmud (Haggigah 27a) states: “When the Temple was standing the altar would atone for a person; now that the Temple has been destroyed, a person’s table atones for him.” Around the Sabbath table, pious and secular alike are drawn into the heart of their Jewish identity and the holiness of the day. Zionist writer Ahad Ha’Am (1856 – 1927) is famously quoted as saying, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum understood this symbolism and leveraged it in the service of activism. In the face of this tragedy, it is the Sabbath table that brings us together to face the future. May all the loved ones, from grandparents to babies, be brought back now, and may our Sabbath tables be filled again with joy and gladness.

Gilla Nissan, Teacher, Speaker, Author

Shabbat is one of the most unique and influential gifts given to us by our Creator. The entire world adopted a week to be seven days! The Torah teaches us that the seventh day will be different from all other six days; it will be a day of rest. God rested, we rest. This was radical in the old world. The ancient Romans considered us parasites because we didn’t work on Shabbat. 

Hebrew as a language of Truth and Holiness teaches that Shabbat’s root letters relate directly to her meaning.  Shevah/seven, la’sh’vet/sit/ meditate and lish’bot meaning to stop. Stop all creative activities connected to work. It’s a time for contemplation, a time to praise God, His Torah, His Creation, and that we were created in His image!  It’s also time, the Kabbalists revealed, to help His other half, the Shechinah, rise up to unite with Him, Her Lover! We sing Lecha Dodi, “Let’s go my Beloved…”

One of our names as a people is “The people who sanctify the Seventh”. The seventh is celebrated with specific spiritual exercises/mitzvot. The seventh year is an agricultural event and the event of the Jubilee also honored by special instructions. The years leading up to 7000 are envisioned to be times of a paradigm shift/redemption. That’s the Divine plan. Seven is expressed in esoteric literature as the Law of Seven.

Shabbat reassures us that we return to home base, to the beginning, to how we were created: in His image. Shabbat is the hope for a collective expansion of consciousness.


Image: Blessing the Shabbat Candles, 1728

With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, David Porush, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Nili Isenberg, and Gilla Nissan

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