Stepping Up to the Plate: A Lesson in Sabbath Observance

By: Rabbi Yaakov Wolff
September 10, 2023

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (April 5, 1902 – June 12, 1994), the most recent Rabbi of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, was once strolling down the street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he spotted two boys sporting Brooklyn Dodgers hats and tossing a baseball. He greeted them with a cheerful “Good morning” and asked, “Have you ever been to a Dodgers game?” The boys nodded affirmatively. The Rabbi continued, “What would you do if the Dodgers were losing by ten runs in the sixth inning?” The boys shrugged and said they would head home since the game seemed pretty much over. The Rebbe then asked, “What about the players? Would they leave in such a situation?” The boys shook their heads, explaining that the players had to stay on the field; they couldn’t just walk away. The Rabbi looked at them and shared a simple but powerful message: “In life, be a player, not a spectator.”

This story contains an important life lesson, but it can also help explain something puzzling about the Sabbath.

In Jewish tradition, a fascinating insight emerges when we compare the two versions of the Ten Commandments included in the Torah. In Exodus, we are commanded to “remember (zachor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). This verse is the source for the Jewish practice of making Kiddush, sanctifying the day over a cup of wine. We “remember” the Sabbath by proclaiming that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, making the seventh day holy.

In Deuteronomy, however, the same command is retold with a different twist: “Observe (shamor) [lit. guard] the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Hashem your God has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 5:12). The sages explain that this version of the command, to observe or guard the Sabbath, prohibits working on the Sabbath and mandates rest.

How do we make sense of this seeming inconsistency in the way the command to keep the Sabbath is described in the two locations?

According to Jewish tradition, an extraordinary miracle occurred when God proclaimed the Ten Commandments. God simultaneously uttered the two words shamor (remember) and zachor (observe/guard). The two versions of the command to keep the Sabbath, recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy, reflect the two different proclamations that God made at exactly the same time! They are meant to be layered one on top of the other, teaching us about the double fulfillment of Sabbath observance.

But the real miracle lay in the Jewish people’s ability to hear and grasp this composite double-word, “remember and observe.”

Zachor and shamor represent the two key elements of Sabbath observance. “Remembering the Sabbath” means acknowledging it as a special day that reinforces our faith in God and His creation. “Guarding the Sabbath” means refraining from work that would violate its sanctity. These two words were spoken and heard as a single unit, signifying their inseparability. But we are still left wondering, what is the message of the intersection of “zachor” and “shamor“? What can we learn from the fact that they were uttered at exactly the same time?

A clue to answering this question can be found in (Genesis 1:27):

“And Hashem created man in His image, in the image of Hashem He created him; male and female He created them.”

Man is made in God’s image, and thus, we are expected to act like God.

This charge sheds new light on the observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath isn’t merely a day to remember an important event from the past, nor is it simply a day to rest and recharge. By stating the two different commands, shamor and zachor, at exactly the same time, God was teaching us that in order to fully observe the Sabbath we must have both.

While it is important to renew our faith in God and profess belief in Him and His creation (zachor), it doesn’t end there. We must recognize that we are all created in the divine image and are called to live accordingly. This is the essence of observing a day of rest (shamor), just as God did at the end of creation. By stepping back from our worldly concerns and aligning ourselves with the divine cycle of rest and work, we are partnering with God in the ongoing narrative of Creation.

This concept can revolutionize our understanding of the Sabbath and, indeed, any other activity that we engage in. God isn’t a mere spectator, sitting in the stands and taking notes on our performance. Since creation, He has been intimately involved in the world and in our lives. And we are not merely cheering on God for all of His creations. Instead, we must also be actively engaged in making this world a better place.

Rabbi Schneerson’s analogy of a player versus a spectator holds significance for both God and man. Like God, we have important positions to play in the grand “ballgame” of existence. We have pivotal roles to fulfill, and it’s upon us to step onto the field, giving our utmost dedication and effort until the last play.

Rabbi Yaakov Wolff

Rabbi Yaakov Wolff


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