The primacy of Shabbat as the foundation stone of Judaism is self-evident. Shabbat is the culmination of the creation process; two distinct reasons for its observance—creation and the Exodus—are enumerated in the aseret hadibrot; Jewish law prescribes, in theory, the death penalty for its desecration, a punishment we do not have even for the desecration of Yom Kippur. The command to observe Shabbat appears in numerous places and contexts in the Torah.
VaYakhel: Seven Days a Week
“Moshe assembled the entire Israelite community, and said to them: These are the words that G-d has commanded for you. Six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be for you as Shabbat of Shabbat to G-d” (35:1-2). This seemingly superfluous command puzzled our Sages. They sought to explain its significance based on its contextual placement, introducing as it does the laws relating to construction of the Tabernacle.
Our Sages derived from this verse the law that Shabbat may not be violated for the purposes of construction of the mishkan. This seems obvious; why would one even entertain the idea that construction of the mishkan can override Shabbat? Building the mishkan on Shabbat would be akin to “a mitzvah performed through sin”, rendering the “mitzvah” null and void. Yet there is reason to think otherwise. The mishkan, once built, operates as usual on the Shabbat with little regard for Shabbat observance. Communal—albeit not personal—sacrifices are brought; we even have extra sacrifices, the korbanot mussaf, in honour of Shabbat. Given the fact that the mishkan was up and running on Shabbat, then surely its construction should have been allowed on Shabbat— hence the need for biblical exegesis to prohibit such construction.
Yet the above begs the question of why this is so. Why was the Temple allowed to operate on Shabbat, and if allowed to operate, why must construction cease on Shabbat?
The holiness of the Shabbat emanates from G-d and was established by G-d, even before the creation of man. Yom Tov, on the other hand, is dependent on the sanctification of the new moon, something that could only be done by the Jewish people living in Israel. The Rambam (Book of Commandments, positive mitzvah 153) goes so far as to say that if, G-d forbid, there were to be no Jews living in the land of Israel, the Yamim Tovim would cease to exist. It was we, the people, who determined the date for Rosh Hashanah, in effect telling G-d when He was to judge us.
Shabbat is the acknowledgment of a Divine Creator, that G-d's presence must be felt on earth. The mishkan is the place where that presence is most felt, as we stand “lifnei Hashem”, in the presence of G-d. “And you shall make for Me a Temple, and I will dwell therein” (25:8). The mishkan is where Shabbat—where G-d's presence—is felt seven
days a week, obviating the need for special Shabbat observances. It is no wonder our Sages list a series of ten miracles that were commonplace in the Temple. In the presence of the Divine, all is natural.
Yet, building that Temple is man, striving to feel the presence of G-d; it is the very earthly man who is seeking the Divine. And man needs Shabbat in order to come closer to G-d.
Being in the presence of G-d mandates a level of behaviour that brings glory to the name of G-d. The fact that we do not have a Temple is testament to the fact that we, as people, have not lived up to that standard. We have not yet managed to create heaven on earth, to fully appreciate the meaning of Shabbat. Interestingly, only communal sacrifices were to be offered on Shabbat—sacrifices of a personal nature had to wait for a weekday. Apparently, the presence of G-d can only be fully felt when we come together as a community. May we merit doing so.