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Home » B'Har

B’har B’chukotai: The Workweek

Submitted by on May 9, 2020 – 11:15 pmNo Comment | 1,425 views

The workweek is mundane, Shabbat is holy. Right? Well, maybe not. Let’s take a closer look.

The Torah presents the laws of the Sabbatical year. For six years, work your fields, on the seventh year you shall rest. This is remarkably similar in both content and language to Shabbat—for six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest.

What do we rest from? The Talmud lists thirty-nine categories of work from which we rest on Shabbat. The first eleven categories are what the Talmud calls, the order of bread. They include plowing, planting, reaping, sheaf-binding, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking. Except for baking, these are the same types of work that we perform in the field during the six work-years, which further cements the relationship between Shabbat and the Sabbatical.

Ordinarily, when we think of the weekday/Shabbat—work-years/Sabbatical dichotomy, we think of Shabbat and the Sabbatical as holy and the workweek and work-years as mundane. The Sabbatical is when we devote ourselves to higher causes such as study and contemplation. During the work-years, we have no time for higher thought. We are on a constant grind to keep up with the season.

(Last week, we discussed the long nights of winter as a time to break from work and indulge in Torah study. But even the winter doesn’t give us a true break from our hectic work pace. Though we don’t work in the fields during the winter, we still need to grind, sift, knead, and bake. The Shabbat and the Sabbatical are when we truly live higher. They give us a chance to break away from the constant grind and focus upward rather than downward, inward rather than upward.)

Yet, G-d seems to have had a different idea. He gave us six years to work and one year to rest. Six days to work and one day to rest. If the quality of Shabbat was so much greater than the week, why did He not make it possible for us to complete our work in a day, and give us six days to rest, play, study, and pray?

Of course, it is the way of the world that it takes longer to prepare than to enjoy. It takes hours to prepare a meal and minutes to eat it. It takes weeks to sow a wedding gown and one night to wear it. Similarly, we enjoy on Shabbat, what we prepare during the week. But that doesn’t explain why G-d made the world  this way. If the wedding is more important than the sowing, why did He not make it possible to sow a gown in a night and enjoy a wedding for weeks? Now that would have been fun!!!

From this we can justifiably deduce that from G-d’s perspective there is something about the workweek and the work-years that you can’t find in Shabbat and the Sabbatical. What might that be?

Minus One
We can gain a clue about the quality of our workweek and work-year by the idiom employed by our sages to describe the thirty-nine categories of work that we perform during the week, but may not perform on Shabbat. Our sages called it forty minus one. They did not say thirty-nine. They said forty minus one.

Now our sages were not hyperbolic; they were very economic with their words. We build mountains of halachic inference and deductions from a single phrase, a word, even an extra letter found in the Talmud. If they employed this odd idiom, they were certainly trying to broadcast a message. What might that be?

You might very well have already deduced where I am headed with this. Yes, The ONE, the one and only one, is G-d, the Creator of heaven and earth. Our sages were trying to tell us why we work. What is the underlying purpose of all the things we do? We plow so that we could plant, we plant so that we could reap, we reap so that we could bind sheaves, and so on until we finally get to bake. But we don’t bake for fun (though baking is a favorite pastime especially during COVID-19), we bake so that we could eat. And why do we eat? So that we could live. Yes, and why do we live? So that we could plow, plant, reap, bake, and eat again? That sounds a little circular, doesn’t it?

Our sages came along and told us that we do all that because the world is minus ONE and we need to reintroduce the ONE—the Creator—to the world that He created. We do all the things that we do because we need them in order to live, and we need to live so that we can bring G-d back into Creation by studying Torah, performing Mitzvot, sharing a kindness, offering forgiveness, giving to charity, etc.

But our sages did not say that we live minus ONE, they said we work minus One. By that, they offered a deeper insight. If we plow with the intention to reap, so that we could live, so that we could bring holiness into the world, our plowing becomes holy. The fielded, the overturned soil, is no longer minus ONE. Our guided work has introduced the ONE into the soil, into the field, the plow, the seeds, the thresher, winnower, mill, oven, bread, and even our digestive system. We have made them holy by giving them a critical role to play in our work. They all support our efforts to reintroduce the ONE into our lives.

We don’t work for six days and years to introduce the ONE into our lives on Shabbat and the Sabbatical. We work for six days and years to can introduce G-d into the mundane world during the week. On Shabbat and the Sabbatical, we are at home, in the study hall, and in the synagogue. We do holy things in holy places that don’t need us to introduce them to the ONE. He is already there. The rest of the world needs us to introduce them to the ONE and that can only be accomplished during the week.

The world is much larger than the study halls and synagogues. The world requires much more work than the synagogue and the home. G-d, therefore, gave us six days/years to introduce the ONE to the big wide world, where the work is challenging and vast, but only one day/year to dwell in the home and the synagogue because one year suffices for those places. There is no question that our work on Shabbat and the Sabbatical is holier and more enjoyable to the soul. But our work during the workweek and work-year is more important to G-d.

The Talmud tells us that on Shabbat we must feel that all our work is done. If we are not meant to think of work on Shabbat, why should we dwell on the fact that our work is done? Would it not be better to ignore the workweek altogether? It is because we can only get the reprieve of Shabbat, the getaway for the soul, if we successfully complete the work of the week. We enjoy Shabbat because our work is done. And because we completed the work, we are depleted spiritually and need to recharge on Shabbat.

So, you see, the week is not subservient to Shabbat. Shabbat is subservient to the week. We rest on Shabbat, to gather physical strength for the week. We study and pray on Shabbat, to recharge spiritually for the week. The week is the most important work. It is associated with the ONE.

This is why the Talmud derives the 39 categories of work from the types of work that were performed in the Temple. If the workweek is mundane, why are the sacred tasks of worship used as a premise for the week? It is because the work of the week takes place in the mundane, but is not itself mundane. It is the sacred task of transforming the mundane into holiness. Of introducing the ONE into the world.

So, the next time you drive to work on a Monday morning (may this soon be a reality for us all) don’t be gloomy. Recognize that you are launching a fabulous week of introducing the ONE into every facet of life. Your work, clients, patients, colleagues, friends, and world. You are bringing ONE into the world and soon, very soon, we will merit the coming of Mashiach, when the world will be successfully delivered unto the ONE.[1]

[1] This lesson is based on Sefer Hasichos 5750, 2:645-646.