וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹלָם. בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָֹה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ. *1*
…uvayom hashevi-i shavat vayinafash
“It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. [For in six days YHVH made heaven and earth,] and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed”
On its surface, this passage is connecting the observance of Shabbat to the Creation of the universe. The idea that God spent six days working, and then as the final act of Creation, ceased all labor and rested, is the origin of the human need to rest. As it often does, the Torah speaks in anthropomorphisms, ascribing to God the word vayinafash. It means more than just “then He rested.” There are other words for that. The word nefesh conveys the idea of soul, or vitality, or essential character.*2* Robert Altar translates the expression as “on the seventh day He ceased and caught His breath.”
A midrash reads something else into this word: vayinafash. Something happens during Shabbat, when we observe it, that is a contrast from our experiences during the other six days of the week.
In the Talmud,*3* Resh Lakish teaches that “The Holy Blessed One gives a person an additional soul (neshamah yeteirah) on the eve of Shabbat, but at the end of Shabbat it is taken away. [How do we know this?] As the Torah says: shavat vayinafash – “He ceased from work and was refreshed.” keivan sheshavat – once that day has ceased, vay avdah nafesh – woe, that soul is gone.
Reish Lakish is pointing to a legend that teaches that we gain an extra soul on Shabbat. That extra soul attaches itself to our seven-day-a-week soul and remains with us for all of Shabbat. When it leaves on Saturday night, we are sad. So the word vayinafash really is a contraction of vay – “oy!!” and nefesh – the soul.
Oy for the loss of the extra Shabbat soul.
Rashi adds that the extra soul enables us to fully enjoy the eating, drinking and relaxation of Shabbat. Food tastes better. The rest is more rejuvenating. And when that special time is over, it’s kind of sad.
It’s like when the last day of a vacation arrives (the kind of vacation that includes relaxing on a resort). We don’t want it to end. We don’t want to go back to work and school, and cooking and cleaning up after ourselves. But every vacation must end. Oy!
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, understands the passage a bit differently. He takes the midrash of vayinafash as a lament: “oy for the soul.” But it is not at the end of Shabbat as the extra soul is departing that it happens. It is at the beginning of Shabbat.
Here is how he imagines it: as Shabbat enters us on Friday evening, we are aroused from our foolish slumber and given extra clarity. We look back to the previous six days, and with this new insight, recognize all of those moments that we were not devoted to Torah study or spiritual practice. And then, we cry, “Oy. Woe, that soul that was lost! Woe for all the time wasted in useless endeavors.”
How many minutes spent on Facebook? Or watching TV? Or procrastinating?
How much more time could have been spent with partners or spouses, or friends? Or reading with children? Were there times when we could have been learning Torah? Or performing gemilut chasadim, lovingly helping others?
As Shabbat begins, and we set the distractions aside, we are made painfully aware that our time could have been better-spent.
And so, we are left with two different interpretations of vayinafash. Either it’s the end of Shabbat, and the soul is lamenting the loss of its partner and anticipating the loneliness it will face in the coming week. Or, it’s the beginning of Shabbat, and the newfound awareness instills in us a sense of regret for how poorly we have treated our souls during the previous week.
Either way, “oy!”
Thank God, Rabbi Simchah Bunim has a more positive take on it. He would have us live in the moment. As soon as a person begins to rest on Shabbat, ovedet nafsho “vay” shelah. A person’s soul loses its “oy.”*4*
Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. True Shabbat rest means being fully in the moment. Not regretting the past, nor anticipating the future. Just being present. And when we can do that, all of our “oy’s” float away. I like that.
So which is it? What is Shabbat for us? Is it a temporary opportunity to experience spiritual joy, and heightened sensuality? Is it a painful reminder of how much time we spend not engaged in fruitful endeavors? Or, is it a respite from the difficulties and burdens of life? Probably a bit of all three.
A challenge that many of us face here in the South Bay is that we don’t know how to observe Shabbat. I think that there are a lot of people that recognize a need to slow down and take a break from all of the busy-ness of our lives. A lot of people are longing for spirituality, and would love to be able to have a Shabbat like the midrash describes. A Shabbat on which an extra soul attaches to ours. When food and drink really do taste better. When we get to have rest that is truly rejuvenating.
A barrier for some is, quite simply, not knowing how to do it. Not knowing the prayers to recite around the Shabbat table on Friday night, or how to sing the Shabbat zemirot, the special Sabbath songs. Or, having kids who resist any sort of limits placed on their actions.
In neighborhood Jewish communities, there is a Shabbat feeling that permeates the streets. When we lived in New York, we would pass dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people on our way to and from synagogue. The shul did not have a weekly sit down kiddush, because people in the community would regularly invite each other over for Shabbat lunch, and spend the whole afternoon together. Kids could easily go over to friends’ homes.
Life in the suburbs makes this a whole lot more difficult. Most of us do not have neighbors who are observing Shabbat. The atmosphere in the streets of San Jose does not experience a palpable shift on Friday evening. Few, if any, people in our community are hosting Shabbat lunches in their homes.
So we have brought Shabbat experiences into the shul. For the last several years, we have made a concerted effort to provide a full Shabbat lunch almost every week. We say the berakhot together before the meal, and always sing Birkat HaMazon afterwards, for those who choose to stay long enough. And sometimes, we sing zemirot. For kids, we have brought in books, games, and sports equipment, to make this a fun place to be, and gain positive Shabbat memories. This creates an opportunity, for those who choose to embrace it, to celebrate Shabbat together, and not feel like we are on our own in our homes, longing to have some sort of experience, but not having the resources to do it.
But I still think there is a longing for more. I know there is a longing for more. More opportunities for our souls to lose their “oy’s” by being truly present in the moment. And I think that we can find more of those opportunities together in our shul.
Opportunities to spend Shabbat together: singing, talking, learning, resting. Waking up to become aware of the extra soul.
Shabbat has the potential to transform our entire lives.
That is part of the idea behind havdallah. After the three stars appear in the sky, and Shabbat is technically over, we try to hang on for a few more minutes. So we invoke the senses one last time, hoping that the extra soul will stick around a bit longer.
Havdallah is about beginning the new week with Shabbat still part of us. It sends a hopeful message that we can enter the days of creation without forgetting what we are here for. This week can be the week when the additional soul stays with us. The week when we remember to be spiritually aware in every moment, and when this awareness adds that special spice that makes our food taste better, our rest more rejuvenating, and our love for each other stronger.
This Shabbat can be the Shabbat when the “oy” leaves our soul, and does not come back.
*2*Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary:Exodus, p. 202.
*3*BT Beitzah 16a, Ta’anit 27b
*4*Itturei Torah III, 256.