parsha yitroThe highlight of our parsha is the Jews receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The fourth commandment is:  “Remember the Sabbath day….Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work….”

What is the message of Shabbat? One powerful one is found in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses repeats the Ten Commandments, and it is explained that Shabbat commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and reminds us of lessons learned there about freedom and slavery.

One insight into what it means to be truly free is found in the rabbinic commentary of Mechilta. It focuses on a small turn of a phrase. The Torah says that we should do “all” of our work in six days, and then rest on the Shabbat.  The Mechilta asks: is it truly possible for a person to do “all his work” in six days? When do we ever finish the day with “all” our work done at the end of the day? The Rabbis explain that we must “rest on Shabbat as if all of our work is done. “

This is a powerful lesson. Sometimes we leave work, but work doesn’t leave us. We carry our worries and concerns with us, well into our family and leisure time. In today’s world where our bedtime companions are our laptops and cellphones, we never really let go and feel that we have completed our work for that week. It seems almost impossible.  With the progress of technology, Shabbat becomes even more important than before.

The true work of Shabbat is to find a way to close the door on our work and our worries. There is a Chassidic custom to eat the dish known as “farfel” during our Friday night Shabbat meal. (We happen to also love farfel in my house!) This custom comes from a similarity with the Yiddish word, “farfallen”, which translates as “it’s finished”. The meaning of the custom to eat farfel is to say that whatever has happened that week is finished, and it needs to be put in the past. In other words, what’s done is done and there is no use spending time ruminating and worrying about what has already happened, and now is a time to focus on other matters. On Shabbat, we have to move away from our work and our worries and live for a period of 24 hours in the here and now.

This insight about Shabbat is similar to the ideas of a movement in psychology known as mindfulness.  This movement, which focuses on the reduction of stress and anxiety, is having a significant impact on our workplaces and homes. Mindfulness may be defined as follows:

“Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental, open attitude,” ( or “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”. (Wikipedia)

Shabbat is a way of putting at least one day of mindfulness into our lives. It is a day which allows us to focus on gratitude, thankfulness, food, family, prayer and God. We need to have a day in our week where we can disengage from our technology and our work and just be in the moment. In a world which has had to resort to having dinner parties where the guests are asked to turn in their phones (or else get stuck with the bill!) so that they can have real and meaningful interactions, we need to find better answers.  Try turning off your phone for even an hour – can you really do this?

Many of us find it difficult to make “living in the moment “ part of our  lives, and because of this, miss out on many meaningful moments and relationships. I believe that the Jewish response is Shabbat. It is a beautiful 24 hour period of disengagement with work and re-engagement with our personal lives. The Torah asks us to take one day out of seven and remember our freedom. But the question is: do we know how to live as free people, or are we just slaves in a different way?

Shabbat Shalom