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Shavuos: Torah, Shabbos and the Jews

A Striking entry in our Shavuot Contest for Children and Teens from Aryeh Spiro, age 8, of Toronto.

A Striking entry in our Shavuot Contest for Children and Teens from Aryeh Spiro, age 8, of Toronto.

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Shavuos. How unremarkable a name for a Yom Tov that celebrates the very foundation of our existence. Actually, Shavuos is one of five names designated for this holiday, the others being Atzeres, Yom HaBikurim, Chag HaKatzir and Z’man Mattan Toraseinu.

The prominence given to “Shavuos” arises from the seven-week interval (shivah Shavuos) – the duration of time it took us to reach an apex of purity that would enable us to receive the holy Torah. This seven-week count cleansed us of defilement and prepared us to stand under the “chuppah” at Har Sinai.

As we say in each successive daily count of the Omer, “May it rectify our nefesh, ruach and neshamah from every baseness and defect, and may it purify and sanctify us with Your supernal holiness.” Here we are taught that the name Shavuos also connotes that Torah must be learned b’kedushah uv’taharah – with a holy and pure spirit.

The significance of that lesson is highlighted by the historic occasion that takes place on a Shabbos, the seventh and most coveted of days, one that God blessed and made holy and presented to us as a “special gift hidden in My treasure house” (Shabbos 10b).

Our spiritual essence is made up of three elements: nefesh – the basic animal part of the soul that drives our material inclinations; ruach, resting on a somewhat higher plane and associated with our emotions, and the neshamah, which is solely spiritual in nature and centers on the intellect.

The ruach tends to dwell with the nefesh on weekdays, whereas on Shabbos – when we divest ourselves of mundane thought and activity – it attaches itself to the neshamah, the loftiest part of our soul. This hones our spiritual awareness, further enhanced by the additional soul given to us on erev Shabbos – the neshamah yeseirah – that inculcates us with that special capacity to perceive and absorb the aura of Gan Eden that Shabbos allows us to sample.

Week after week after week it keeps us going. We look toward it and live for it – not merely for its respite from our daily grind aspect, but for the tonic effect that revitalizes all our senses, physically and spiritually, and impacts our quality of life for the coming week.

The countdown already begins on the first day of the week. Hayom yom echad b’Shabbos… Today is the first day of the Sabbath; Hayom yom sheini b’Shabbos… Today is the second day of the Sabbath, etc.

The tempo builds with each new day, by the evening of the fifth reaching a crescendo that charges the atmosphere of every Jewish home as preparation for the holy Shabbos is in full swing. By the sixth day, an ethereal sense of transformation is palpable. Heaven and earth are in sync, as all of creative work above and below wind down to a standstill.

Har Sinai and all other mountains trembled violently. The waters of lakes and rivers sought to escape their confines as the Holy Presence began to descend to the top of the mount. With the first word of God, the tumult ceased. Not a sound could be heard – from the bird’s trill to the fluttering of its wings, all was still. The angels halted their songs of praise, the ocean their rippling waves, the sun stopped in its rotating tracks as the Master of the Universe declared Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am Hashem your God.

The Torah is literally our life force, for had we not agreed to receive it at Har Sinai, the world would have ceased to exist. Since our faith lies at the core of the holy Torah and the fundamental premise of our belief system is rooted in the holy Shabbos, it is easily discerned how keeping the Shabbos holy is akin to adhering to all of the 613 mitzvosin the Torah.

* * * * *

When the Chofetz Chaim once visited the city of Petersburg, all of its Jewish residents came to greet him at the train station. An affluent citizen in the crowd who had come with the hope of eliciting a berachah from the Chofetz Chaim handed him an impressive sum of money as contribution for the yeshiva in Radin.

The Chofetz Chaim grasped the gevir’s hand and began to cry. “This hand,” he sobbed, “gives tzedakah with such devotion, yet is mechalel Shabbos…”

The tzaddik held onto the hand and wept bitterly until the man himself started to cry.

“Rebbe,” he finally managed to utter, “I give you my word that I will keep Shabbos, but I ask that you allow me to push it off for one week more due to an important assignment I must complete.”

Hearing the man’s words, the Chofetz Chaim responded emotionally, “My child, if the Shabbos were mine, I would forgive you and permit all that you desire, but the Shabbos belongs to the One above, the King of all kings, and I cannot grant even one moment of Chillul Shabbos.”

The heartfelt words spoken by the Chofetz Chaim worked their intent, as the man began to keep the Shabbos holy in all earnestness.

* * * * *

Preparatory measures undertaken in honor of Shabbos entail not merely physical exertion; on erev Shabbos we are obligated to do a cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of our deeds of the week coming to a close.

It was that first Friday, in the week of the world’s creation, that witnessed the first man on earth manifest his vulnerability to sin even before his first day on earth was done. His Creator’s intent to punish him with extinction did not sit well with the Holy Shabbos – and she promptly intervened on Adam’s behalf, objecting to the first passing of human life marring her day. Hashem gave validity to the grievance and spared Adam’s life.

Since it is in the nature of mortals to memorialize a day when one was miraculously saved, we were commanded to keep the Shabbos holy – the day that saved the life of the first man on earth. (Ohr HaChayim)

The bride and groom are absolved of all their sins on their wedding day and are granted a fresh start. Shavuos, a time for renewal of our vows, commemorates our “wedding” at Kabbalas Torah and is hence an exalted time for teshuvah – as significant a day as Yom Kippur, when our transgressions are forgiven.

Shavuos is also considered to be a Yom HaDin b’ruchnios. On Rosh Hashanah the fate of mankind – who shall live and who shall die – is decided for the coming year, whereas on Shavuos our spiritual vitality and our soul’s life energy are adjudicated – who will merit divine assistance in learning and in the performance of mitzvos and maasim tovim. (Yismach Yisrael)

* * * * *

The esteemed Rebbetzin Malka, mother of Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Reb Pinchas of Frankfurt, two Torah giants and tzaddikim, was known to say: “I have two sons, one who never says krias shema at bedtime (Reb Shmelke never went to bed), and one who doesn’t say birchas hamazon for he doesn’t wash for meals (Reb Pinchas was known to hardly eat).

Reb Shmelke spent his nights learning Torah and would conquer his fatigue by keeping a basin of water handy. When tiredness overwhelmed him, he would rest his head on the water and soon feel refreshed and ready to pursue his study.

Late one night, after having been overcome with unbearable fatigue, the tzaddik lifted his head after briefly dozing, only to find that the candle’s flame had gone out. Not wanting to disturb the sleeping occupants in the house, Reb Shmelke stepped out onto a terrace that faced the street below, hoping to catch sight of a means of rekindling his flame so that he could carry on with his learning. No sooner did he begin to scan the dark outdoors than an outstretched hand holding a lit candle offered him the relief he sought.

Back in his room, immersed in his studies once more, a thought suddenly washed over him. How was it possible for anyone to have literally extended him a helping hand from the ground below? (The house he lived in at the time was situated on an upper level.) So troubled was he by the mystery that he began to fervently pray that Heaven reveal to him who it was that had offered him the flame. He agonized over the concern that its source may have been an impure one.

Reb Shmelke’s tefillos were answered; it was revealed to him that Heaven was up in arms when his candle went out since the world was in need of his Torah. The tzaddik’s agitation over his dilemma was further distressing, and it was divinely ordained that Eliyahu HaNavi be dispatched to assist Reb Shmelke so that he could resume his learning.

Discovering that Eliyahu HaNavi had been imposed upon on his account devastated the tzaddik. For months on end following this incident, each time it came to mind he’d weep anew.

The Apter Rav, who had heard this story from Reb Shmelke’s sister, would exclaim with incredulity that Reb Shmelke did teshuvah for the “sin” of being matriach (imposing upon) Eliyahu HaNavi for the purpose of enabling him to learn unhampered so that the universe would not be deprived of his Toras Emes. Imagine, he’d say, the repentance incumbent on the rest of us!

* * * * *

“Until the day following the seventh week you shall count fifty days, so that the souls of Your people Israel may be cleansed from their defilement.” (Sefiras HaOmer)

Each person knows in the depth of his heart whether he has rectified his deeds. But one who finds to his dismay that the days of Sefiras HaOmer have passed and he has yet to right his wrongs can still make amends on the fiftieth day, until Shavuos and including the day of Shavuos. (Beis Avraham)

The mitzvah of lecht tzinden – lighting candles in honor of Shabbos – was given to the woman of the house, as it was she who was responsible for putting out the lights of all neshamos on that infamous first Friday when she ate of the eitz hadaas and had Adam partake of it as well. Woman was therefore commanded to re-light the ner she had extinguished. (A neshamah is referred to as a ner – candle.)

It is moreover fitting for the woman, the queen in her home, to usher in the Shabbos Malkah (Shabbos Queen) with candle-lighting – a privilege and honor to be performed with ultimate joy, which will in turn bode well for her household. (Zohar)

Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed by Hashem to speak first to the women folk, and only then to the men. With the devastation wrought by the first couple early on (when Chava had not personally been commanded to abstain from eating of the Eitz Hadaas), no chances were taken this time around. Hashem intended for the Torah to serve as an everlasting blueprint for man’s existence, and the wife’s support and encouragement would be an indispensable factor to that end.

As it happened, this distinction bestowed upon them at Mattan Torah impelled the women not to take part in the Golden Calf fiasco; to their credit, they refused their husbands’ request to hand over their golden jewelry. (Shemos Rabbah)

* * * * *

The concept of people coming to him for blessings did not sit well with the Chofetz Chaim, who felt that it was Hashem they needed to turn to and beseech.

A frustrated man who had been feeling ill for a prolonged period of time and for whom conventional medicines did nothing once approached the Chofetz Chaim for a berachah. The tzaddik was heard to exclaim:

“Who do you think can give you a berachah? Yisroel Meir? God forbid! The blessings are absolutely not in my hand. Do you know whose hand they are in? In the hand of the Holy Shabbos! As we say when we are mekabel the Shabbos, ‘Likras Shabbos l’chu v’neilchah ki hee mekor ha’berachah – To welcome the Shabbos come let us go, for she is the source of blessing…’ So why do you come to me for a berachah?”

The Chofetz Chaim followed the outburst by saying, “If you will guard the holiness of Shabbos and receive the berachah from Shabbos and will still want to be blessed by me, Yisroel Meir, then I too will bless you.”

The Chofetz Chaim’s words stunned the people around him, for he had perceived through ruach hakodesh that the man who had come to him for a blessing had a son who had stopped being shomer Shabbos.

After a brief lull, the tzaddik continued: “Listen closely. The Torah says, ‘Remember to keep the Shabbos holy,’ and in the same parshah we read, ‘On Shabbos you may do no creative work, not you, your son, or your daughter.’ Now why would one’s children be referred to here when there is no mention of ‘your son or daughter’ by any other mitzvah? Because where other mitzvos are concerned, such as eating non-kosher, each person is responsible for his or her own actions. But where Shabbos is concerned, the father is held answerable for the children who live under his roof, even if they are already considered to be adults.

“In essence, even if you keep Shabbos but it should happen, God forbid, that a son or daughter of yours desecrates the Shabbos, you are unable to draw from the blessings of the holy Shabbos – and the berachah of Yisroel Meir will therefore also not help you.”

At Mattan Torah, an event indelibly etched in our collective hearts and minds for all time, Hashem, Shabbos and the Jews served as witnesses for one another. Each Friday night we, the Jewish people, sanctify the Shabbos in affirmation of the Oneness of God, that in six days He created heaven and earth and on the seventh day He rested; Shabbos in turn testifies “Mi k’amcha Yisrael – Who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the world…”

Jews who make a conscious choice to live life by their own rules and consequently do not observe the Shabbos and keep it holy as God has commanded, are regarded as not believing in the entire Torah. (Sfas Emes)

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. She can be contacted at rachelw32@verizon.net.

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