The shabbat ritual

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Edited from: The Forgotten Language by Erich Fromm 
Symbols are pictorial images or words standing for an idea, feeling or thought. But there is still another kind of symbol, whose significance in the history of man is hardly less great than that of the symbols that occur in dreams, myths or fairy tales. The symbolic ritual where an action, and not a word or image, stands for an inner experience. We all use such symbolic rituals in our everyday life. If we take off our hat as a sign of respect, if we bow our head as a sign of deference, if we shake hands as an expression of friendly feelings – we act symbolically. Such symbols are simple and easily understood, just as some dreams are clear to everyone without elaboration. There are religious symbols which are equally simple; for instance, the Jewish custom of rending one's clothes as a sign of mourning. There are other rituals which are complicated and in need of interpretation, like the Shabbat ritual and the symbolic language in dreams and in myths. 
The rules for Shabbat observance have a prominent place in the Torah. This is the only command referring to a ritual that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord God and on it you shall not do any work; you nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (Ex. 20:8-11). In the second version of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:12-15) the observance of the Sabbath is commanded again, although here reference is not made to God's rest on the seventh day but to the Exodus from Egypt: "And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord God brought you out through a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." 
To the modern mind, there is not much of a problem in the Sabbath institution. The idea that mankind should rest from work one day every week sounds to us like a self-evident, social-hygienic measure intended to give man the physical and spiritual rest and relaxation in order that he not be swallowed up by daily work. No doubt, this explanation is true as far as it goes – but does not answer some questions which arise if we pay closer attention to the Sabbath law of the Torah and particularly to the Sabbath ritual as it developed in the post-Biblical tradition. 
Why is the social-hygienic law so important that it is placed among the Ten Commandments, which otherwise stipulate only fundamental religious and ethical principles? Why is explained with God's rest on the seventh day and what does this "rest" mean? Is God pictured in such anthropomorphic terms as to need a rest after six days of hard work? Why in the second version of the Ten Commandments is the Sabbath explained in terms of freedom rather than of God's rest? What is the common denominator of the two explanations? Moreover, how can we understand the intricacies of the Sabbath ritual in the light of the modern social-hygienic interoperations of rest? In the Torah, a man who gathers sticks (Num. 4:32ff) is considered a violator of the Sabbath law and punished by death. In the later development, not only work in our modern sense is forbidden, but activities like the following: making any kind of physical effort; pulling a single grass blade or flower from the soil; and carrying anything, even something as light as a handkerchief on one's person. All this is not in the sense of physical effort. Its avoidance is often seen more as an inconvenience and discomfort than the doing of it would be. Are we dealing here with extravagant and compulsive exaggerations of an originally "sensible" ritual, or is our understanding of the ritual perhaps faulty and in need of revision? 
A more detailed analysis of the symbolic meaning of the Sabbath ritual will show that we are dealing not with obsessional over-strictness, but with a concept of work and rest which is different from our modern concept. 
The concept of work underlying the Biblical and the later Talmudic concept is not simply that of physical effort, but can be defined thus: "Work" is any interference by man, be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world. "Rest" is a state of peace between man and nature. Man must leave nature untouched -- not change it in any way by building or by destroying anything. Even the smallest change made by man in the natural process is a violation of "rest." The Sabbath is the day of peace between man and nature; work is any kind of disturbance of the man-nature equilibrium. On the basis of this general definition, we can understand the Sabbath ritual. Indeed, any heavy work like plowing or building is work in this as well as in our modern sense. But lighting a match and pulling up a grass blade, while not requiring effort, are symbols of human interference with the natural process, are a breach of peace between man and nature. On the basis of this principle, we understand also the Talmudic prohibition of carrying something of even little weight on one's person. In fact, the carrying of something as such is not forbidden. I can carry a heavy load within my house or property without violating the Sabbath ritual. But I must not carry even a handkerchief from one domain to the other, from the private domain of the house to the public domain of the street. This law is an extension of the idea of peace from the natural to the social realm. Man must refrain from changing the social order. That means not only not to do business, but also the avoidance of that most primitive form of transference of property from one domain to the other. 
The Sabbath symbolizes a state of complete harmony between man and nature and between man and man. By not working, by not participating in the process of natural and social change, mankind is free from the chains of time for one day a week. 
What, in the prophetic view, is the goal of mankind? To live in peace and harmony with our fellow men, with animals, and with the soil. The new harmony is different from that of paradise, Eden. It can be obtained only if man develops fully in order to become truly human, if he knows the truth and does justice, and if she develops her power of reason which frees her from the bondage of man and from the bondage of irrational passions. The prophetic descriptions abound with symbols of this idea. The earth is unboundedly fruitful again. Swords will be changed into plowshares, lion and lamb will live together in peace, there will be no war any more, women will bear children without pain (Talmudic), and the whole of mankind will be united in truth and in love. This new harmony, the achievement of which is the goal of the historical process, is symbolized by the figure of the Messiah. 
The Sabbath is the anticipation of the messianic time, just as the Messianic period is called the time of "continuous Sabbath." 
Resting, not working, then has a meaning different from the modern meaning of relaxation. In the state of rest, mankind anticipates the state of human freedom that will be fulfilled eventually. The relationship of man and nature and of man and man is one of harmony, of peace, of noninterference. Work is a symbol of conflict and disharmony; rest is an expression of dignity, peace and freedom. 
The Sabbath ritual has such a central place in the Biblical religion because it is more than a "day of rest" in the modern sense; it is a symbol of salvation and freedom. This is also the meaning of God's rest; this rest is not necessary for God because he is tired, but it expressed the idea that as great as creation is, greater and crowning creation is peace. God's work is condescension. He must "rest", because He is free and fully God only when He has ceased to work. So is man fully man only when he does not work, when he is at peace with nature and his fellow men. 
The Sabbath seems to have been an old Babylonian holy day, celebrated every seventh day (Shapatu). The Babylonian Shapatu was a day of mourning and self-castigation. It was a somber day, dedicated to the planet Saturn. The Jewish Sabbath becomes the day of joy and pleasure – eating, drinking, singing, physical intimacy – in addition to praying and studying have characterized the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath for two thousand years. The Sabbath has become a day of freedom and joy. Instead of a Sabbath on which many bow down to the lord of time, the Torah's Shabbat symbolizes mankind's victory over time. 

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