Many people have a basic misconception about Shabbat. We tend to think of it as simply a day of rest and relaxation – a day to unwind and free our minds and bodies from the stresses of the workweek. Sounds nice, right?!
While there are aspects of Shabbat that contribute to that end, Shabbat is much more than the Jewish “weekend”. In fact, the laws of Shabbat paint a very different picture. People relate to “relaxing” in very different ways. Some people drive to the beach, others will watch a good movie, and still others will go shopping. In the traditional viewpoint, however, none of these activities are permitted on Shabbat. Knowing that, we might expect actions requiring physical exertion to be forbidden. Yet, technically speaking, one may drag heavy pieces of furniture around his house the entire Shabbat day – but not strike a match or flip a light switch. Similarly, we travel on foot on Shabbat – even though this requires much more physical effort than driving a car. If so, what is the purpose of the Shabbat laws – and how do they remind us that God “worked” for six days and “rested” on the seventh?
The idea is as follows: During the six days of Creation, the world was incomplete. God was engaged in a process of molding the universe, transforming it from more primitive to more advanced states – light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, plants, aquatic life, terrestrials, and at last man.
When the first Shabbat arrived, God’s work was finished. The world was perfect and complete. God no longer had to change the world and improve upon it. Everything the world required and would ever require existed and had been put into place. God had only to leave the universe as is, allowing all its components to function in harmony.
This is what we mean when we explain that God “rested” on Shabbat (Genesis 2:2). It was not, of course, that God was “tired” and had to take a break from His work. It was that God had brought the world to a state of perfection. He no longer had to interfere with it, alter it or modify the world to improve it. All of Creation could “rest”: it could exist just the way it was – with all its components coexisting in peace and harmony.
This phenomenon is re-enacted each week on Shabbat. During the week we see the world as incomplete. We must labor: clear the land, till the soil, build shelters, plant, harvest, cook, manufacture – all in order to make the world a suitable habitat for humanity. For six days, we – as did God – must force our mark upon the world – altering it from its natural state in order to make it a vessel worthy of mankind.
On Shabbat we recognize that God’s world is perfect, and we don’t want to interfere with that perfection.