Shabbat: Best Known Commandment and Best Open Secret

March 8, 2024


This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayakhel, is one of the Torah’s 13 chapters about the Mishkan, all within the book of Exodus! Yup, you heard right – chapters 25 to 31 discuss the specifications for this structure, its materials and measurements down to the last detail, and then chapters 35 to 40 cover the actual construction. By all counts, that’s a LOT of ink spilled for a structure that, while important, served a very specific purpose during a very specific time in the Israelite’s and the Jewish people’s history… But what sets this week’s parsha apart and provides punctuation between the plans for and then the crafting and constructing of the Mishkan, is that it opens with another reiteration of a previously-commanded mitzvah – Shabbat. In the midst of coalescing around the creation of their first sacred space, the Israelites are reminded of their unique obligation to also carve out and coalesce around sacred time

To my mind, Shabbat is one of the best open secrets of Jewish tradition and one of the most misunderstood Jewish practices. I’ll explain: Very often, when folks chat with me about their own Jewish practice, while they may love coming to services and meals and programs at the Temple, even if not every week, they will lament or dismiss out of hand any further engagement with Shabbat, usually based on very conservative interpretations of Shabbat’s don’ts and can’ts, and assumptions that if they were to “really” observe Shabbat, it would mean no spending money, no driving, no electronics… These can feel like too much to commit to, and not feasible in our own lives and, while this may surprise you coming from a rabbi, I think that’s ok! In truth, while there are specific prohibited activities on Shabbat, most are associated with priestly service in the Mishkan and the Temple; most of commonly cited don’ts that folks today name come from thousands of years of reverse-engineering Torah to confront our contemporary context, but they are but one of many possible interpretations of how to do Shabbat! 

That said, I prefer to think about Shabbat as a day to simply operate differently in the world than I do the other six days of the week, and of what I can do in order to feel like I am dwelling in what Heschel called “a palace in time”. In my own life, Shabbat has become an oasis in the week, in which my husband Michael and I can spend real quality time together, take long walks with our dog, Priya, and spend all afternoon having leisurely lunches with our friends, without the distractions of Netflix or our respective and ever-growing to-do lists. And while I will drive and use my phone if need be, I strive to do so differently on Shabbat. For example, I don’t run errands that I can save for another day, and avoid mindlessly scrolling on social media. However, I will drive to see friends, spend money on coffee or a meal with them, and use Google Maps to get me there. 

These feel qualitatively different to me because, while they might not fall into someone else’s interpretation of Shabbat laws, they fulfill one of the central purposes of Shabbat: of connection – with my inner spiritual life, with the people who are most important to me, and with my community. It’s no coincidence then, that the title this week’s parsha, “vayakhel,” means “and [Moses] convened,”  shares a grammatical root – kuf-hey-lamed (ק-ה-ל) – with the words “kahal” and “kehillah,” meaning gathering and community. This reminds us, along with the obligation to keep Shabbat, that the purpose of Shabbat (and of Judaism writ large!) is to connect us to ourselves, to what’s most important in our lives, and most uniquely, to one another in community. Philosopher Ahad HaAm said, “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews,” which is borne out by social science research, showing that being with others in meaningful ways actually has a sustaining effect on our quality of life and our longevity. It’s no surprise then that Jewish leaders and thinkers credit Shabbat, the designation of sacred time to be together in ways the rest of the week does not regularly allow, for the Jewish people’s continued existence and Judaism’s continued relevance.

This Shabbat, I hope you can take some time, whether for just a few moments on Friday night or Saturday, or from sundown to sundown if you’re able, to pause, to breathe, to hold your loved ones close, and to bask in the presence of your community, both Jewish and otherwise.


Rabbi Jenn Queen