Shabbat or Death

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakel Pekudey we read,” And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:1-2) While the idea of the Sabbath is critical to the Jewish world-view, the Torah’s prescription of death for violating the Sabbath seems a bit harsh. Why is breaking Shabbat a capital offense?

It is interesting to note the context in which we read about this law. It is sandwiched in between to two descriptions of the construction of the tabernacle. In the context of our building a home for God we are told that if we act in certain way we will die. There is an interesting parallel here to the story about God’s building us a home, the Garden of Eden. In Genesis we read, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.'(Genesis 2:16-17) Similarly, in Genesis if Adam did something the consequence was death. While they are connected by their punishments, what is the meaning of the connection between eating of the tree of Knowledge and working on Shabbat?

In both cases, God is charging humankind to be more then just creatures of habit. We are not just animals that eat and build. Our true humanity is in our capacity to reflect. We cannot let ourselves be just a derivative of our work lives. We have to seek meaning in our lives both through and beyond the physical. So too in our lives, we cannot be satisfied without taking a break from the everyday experience. We need to strive to be more then what we do for a living. If we do not remember that fact, we are already dead.

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