Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The message of an SMS-free Shabbat

"Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord; whoever performs work thereon [on this day] shall be put to death” (Exodus 35: 1-2).

March 13, 2015 10:56
4 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)


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‘Six days physically creative activities shall be done but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the Lord (of love)…; you shall not kindle a fire in all of your habitations on the Sabbath day’ (Exodus 35:2, 3)

Why can’t I go on Facebook on Shabbat or SMS my friend? I understand that it is forbidden for me to get involved in a physically exacting activating such as bricklaying or even working in the office an eight-hour day, but what kind of work is involved in a simple SMS communication to a friend? Is not such human communication the very purpose of Shabbat rest? There certainly is not even a hint of “kindling a fire,” not even the creation of a spark or the turning on of a light, in sending an SMS: So why is it forbidden? Such are the questions I am receiving from more and more of the youngsters who are part of our age of the Internet. What is the proper response? A careful study of these opening verses to this week’s portion of Vayakhel clearly teaches that Shabbat is more than a respite from the physical activities in which we are engaged during the rest of the week, is more than a welcome day of physical rest from a sixday work week of physical exertion. Yes, it is also that, and for most of humanity for most of human history that in itself was a critical necessity towards making life much more livable and enjoyable. But if that were to be the whole point of Shabbat, then one could spend it comfortably relaxing in bed without any activity whatsoever. And that is not what the biblical text is teaching when it states, “The seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths [Shabbaton, a special day of more than physical rest] for the Lord [of love],” a sacred day dedicated to God on High and not only to the comfort of your aching body! And this point is clearly made by Nahmanides, in his biblical commentary (Ramban on Leviticus 23:24) in which he explains the word Shabbaton, when used in the context of Rosh Hashana, to mean that in addition to the negative prohibition of work – melacha – on Shabbat there must be also a positive biblical commandment for a positive and recognizable expression of Shabbat menuha (spiritual activity which can be accomplished on the one day in which the individual is freed from his usual necessary weekday toil), a day dedicated to God. And he adds that the word Shabbaton applies this positive principle for every Shabbat and Festival.

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Maimonides derives this very same positive biblical commandment from the words in the Decalogue regarding the Sabbath day in order that your gentile manservant and maidservant shall rest like you (Deut. 5:14) – a positive, spiritual rest which ought apply to all of humanity! Hence there is a biblical command (Shabbaton or L’ma’an yanuah) not to engage in an activity on Shabbat which is identified with work-related activities during the week (like using the telephone or text messaging).

But it is even a good deal more than that. If you study the second Mishna in the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat, you will see that the very order of the listed 39 forbidden creative activities go from the production of bread to the production of garments to the production of leather to the acts of building structures.

In effect, the Mishna is teaching that although it is legitimate to provide for the basic necessities of human existence – food, clothing and shelter – during the six workdays of the week, Shabbat must remind us of the essence and purpose of human life: to communicate with our family members and with our community members, to make sensitive and sentient contact with the glories of nature surrounding us (the God without) and with the “soul of life” (nishmat haim) inspirited within us (the God within). Shabbat is a day put aside for reflecting upon and for expressing the very purpose of our being, the “why” for which I am living, rather than the how to continue to exist as comfortably as possible.

Indeed, our generation has more human communication but less real communication than ever before.

We constantly text message but before we can read what came a minute ago, two more new messages have already arrived. We “see” what our “friend” has written, we often do not hear the sound of his voice, which reflects his truest inner feelings. I recently read about a young girl who invited her 500 Facebook “friends” to her birthday party and not one of them showed up…. I can be in an important meeting with a colleague or employee, but our eyes never make contact; he is looking down at the new messages entering his cellphone. A few weeks ago I saw a newly-minted bride and groom eating “together” at a restaurant, he on his phone and she on her phone; they were not speaking to each other! Shabbat provides the opportunity to “plug out” for one day a week in order to more successfully “plug-in” the other six days; without that Shabbat respite, you just may become “plugged-up.”

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

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