Posted on January 31, 2023 by Jonathon Adler
Winter 2023 PLS Participant
On my winter vacation, I took a trip to the Holy Land. I spent an incredibly wonderful week learning at the Pardes Institute, a truly special institute of higher learning, with professors from multiple traditions within Judaism, including Orthodox rabbis who are women, which was a truly pleasant surprise. I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue which my parents later left because of the lack of gender equality.
Our week-long seminar was titled “In Praise of Doing Nothing,” and we learned about halakhah, various traditions, and textual bases for Shabbat and Shemittah – the remittance year when farmers are to leave the land fallow.
One of the things that I was a bit embarrassed to learn is that שבת is not derived from the verb לשבת which means “to sit.” But I turned this embarrassment into something special. I am a rabbinical student a year and a half before my ordination, God-willing, at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. As such, I serve as a rabbinical intern at a synagogue in suburban Philadelphia. I had the opportunity to teach there the Friday night after I returned from Israel, so I shared this fact. I explained to the congregants, saying:
“Hebrew verbs have a root, or שורש, which usually comprises three letters. The shoresh of לשבת is י-ש-ב. Think about Sukkot, the blessing לישב בשובה. But the verb whose shoresh is part of the word ש-ב-ת, both the noun for Shabbat and its associated verb tenses – is actually ש-ב-ת. Its infinitive form is לשבות. We hear it in Exodus 31:16, which is the first verse of ושמרו:
כי ששת ימים עשה ה׳ את השמיים ואת הארץ. וביום השביעי שבת וינפש.
In six days, God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day, God שבת and was refreshed.”
I asked the congregants if they knew what לשבת means; they were also unaware. And I taught, as I had learned at Pardes:
“So… לשבות means to CEASE or to STOP. Too many translations are rooted in an idea set forth centuries ago by King James. On the Seventh Day, he wrote, God rested and was refreshed: שבת וינפש. But what the original Hebrew text is telling us is that God ceased God’s activities. God stopped the work of creation. It was because of this stopping, not because God decided to “sit down” or “relax,” but in the cessation of work, that God was able to refresh God’s self. This stoppage is what brings us the magical gift of Shabbat each week.
“We emulate the Holy Blessed one: we too stop and become refreshed.
“It’s not easy to stop and just… let everything go, as God did on that first seventh day; the first Shabbat, after the six days God spent creating. For us, it takes a lot of faith in the Divine to be able to stop our work, knowing that we have a full 25 hours in which we don’t have to worry about mundane concerns, but this sacred business of ceasing. Where did we get the confidence that our obligations would would not disappear during this seventh day, during Shabbat? How do we know that the work will still be there come Sunday?”
The profound irony of the week-long seminar was that my fellow students and I learned – time and time again – that the gift of ceasing doesn’t just come. There is actually work we must do in order to be able to שבת. We have to make this big existential leap from knowing that we’re in the middle of whatever projects and jobs we have, to ceasing and setting this concerns aside.
And as I taught this lesson to my congregants, as I explained to them, “When we accomplish this, when we are truly able to let the concerns of חול – the mundane six days – go, then, and only then, are we able to receive the divine gift of Shabbat. This is when we get to say… Shabbat Shalom.”
And now, I get to say “Thank you,” to Pardes. To the incredible teachers, staff, caterers, leaders, and especially to my fellow students. Due to Covid, I was not able to spend a semester in Israel during my time in Rabbinical School. Studying at Pardes this winter did a whole lot towards filling that gap; I hope I will be blessed with the opportunity and privilege to study at Pardes again and again.