Sometimes it seems that our Sages went out of their way not to say things directly. When simpler language could have been used, they seem to make a point of sending their message in an indirect, and sometimes even cryptic way. Discussing the number of melachot, categories of forbidden work on Shabbat, the Mishna in Masechet Shabbat states that there are “arba’im chaser achat” – forty minus one. Why does the Mishna choose this curious language? Why not state directly that there are 39 categories of forbidden work? To answer this question, I’d like to pose another (yes, another classic Jewish trait!).
Did the first Shabbat occur at the end of creation or after creation? On the surface, it seems that God created the world for six days and then on the seventh day, He stopped creating. However, the Torah does say “vayechal Elokim bayom hashvi’i melachto asher asah,” that God finished His work on the seventh day. If God finished His work on the seventh day, then that would seem to indicate that He had in fact worked on the seventh day. But didn’t God rest on the seventh day? Rashi addresses this question, explaining that “bata Shabbat, bata menuch,” meaning that “Shabbat came, menucha came.” Rashi’s words shed light on the nature of God’s work on the seventh day. When Shabbat arrived on that day, God created menucha.
Furthermore, this new understanding of “work” brings additional meaning to our original question about the Mishna’s language in addressing the number of categories of melacha on Shabbat. Indeed, in his Sefer Pardes Yosef, Rav Yosef Patzanovski explains the Mishna states that there are “forty minus one,” to highlight the fact that one particular type of melacha is distinct from the rest. Yes, there are forty categories in total. But while thirty-nine of them are forbidden on Shabbat, one is permitted and even encouraged. That one melacha is menucha. Because unlike all the other categories of work that are to be avoided on Shabbat, the work of menucha is integral to the experience of Shabbat itself.
So, we must ask - what is menucha? Is it simply resting, refreshing ourselves for the coming week? Can this really be all that this special category of melacha entails? In Parshat Yitro, the Torah tells us “vayanach bayom hashvi’i.” God engaged in menucha on the seventh day. Certainly, God does not need to rest to refresh Himself for the upcoming week. Clearly, this reference to “rest” much refer to much more.
The Targum Yerushalmi translates the phrase, “vayechal Elokim bayom hashvi’i,” as “v’chamid Hashem b’yoma shvi’a’a” – God delighted in all that He created on the seventh day. Perhaps then, a more accurate description of menucha involves stopping and reflecting with pride on our accomplishments during the week. Perhaps this is what God did. When the world was created, there was absolute chaos – “tohu va’vohu” – and then order was created. First, light was created, followed by a division of light and darkness, a division of waters and a division of land and water, and then constellations, birds, fish, animals and man were formed or created. There was order. Then Shabbat came and menucha came. Whereas during the time of creation Shabbat was a time to reflect on the order that was just created, today it is a time to reflect on the order that we try to create in our lives during the week. All week long, we follow a detailed and prescribed structure, hopefully bringing order to the chaos and meaning to the ephemeral. And at the end of the week, God asked us to do one more important task – rest, reflect, and engage in the important work of menucha.
Some people may view Shabbat as simply a day of “don’ts” – don’t do this and don’t do that. But to see it that way is to miss the most important “do.” Because in fact, the work that we are commanded to do on Shabbat – rest – is possibly the most important work of our entire week. A purposeful and meaningful life is only achieved when there is reflection. Shabbat provides us with this valuable opportunity, a prescribed time to make the work of our week meaningful. May we all grab this opportunity in a way that reflects the great gift that it is. May our weeks be full, and may our Shabbatot be spent in true menucha, purposeful reflection, of all that we have and all that we have achieved.