Thursday, January 20, 2011


                            WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT YITRO:  2011/5771


The Ten Utterances, the so-called Ten Commandments, are commonly divided into two sets of imperatives. One set, the contents of the first tablet, defines relationships between the individual and God (mitzvot bein adam le-Makom). The contents of the other define relationships between person and person (bein adam le-chavero).

Traditionally, the five Utterances on the first tablet are regarded as being conceptual parallels to those on the second tablet. 

The first Utterance is affirmation of God’s existence. The sixth is the prohibition of murder. Since the human is created in the image of God (be-tzelem Elokim), the destruction of human being is, as it were, a disaffirmation of the divine Being.

The second Utterance commands our exclusive relationship with God. There is to be no other divinity, neither in concept nor in form. Similarly, the seventh Utterance prohibits adultery. Spousal relationships and commitments are absolute and exclusive.

The third Utterance prohibits malfeasance through swearing falsely on the divine Name. Similarly, the eighth prohibits theft, the wrongful acquisition of what does not belong  to one.

The fourth Utterance commands us to rest on the Sabbath day. Just as the Creator rested from the primordial creative enterprise on the seventh day, our observance of the Sabbath is in imitatio dei. We thus act as reliable witnesses to God’s creating and desisting from creating. In this way, the ninth parallels the fourth, It prohibiting bearing false witness.

The fifth Utterance demands that we honor our parents. This imperative is unconditional. We do not choose our parents, and they are not always good to us. We may wish to have other, kinder parents, like some of our friends have. But we are obliged to honor our less than perfect parents. The tenth Utterance’s prohibition of coveting what we think are the superior mates and possessions of others resonates with the imperative of the fifth.

The parallels that I have suggested are superficial and somewhat facile. The literature abounds with more nuanced and complex interpretations, but to summarize them in our limited space would do them scant justice. I shall limit myself to a deeper analysis of just one, perhaps the most obvious—the parallel between the fourth and the ninth.

On its face, the connection is obvious. Both require accurate witnessing—the one in court, and the other in our regular observance of the Sabbath. By desisting from creative activity on the Sabbath, our behavior testifies to our conviction of the divine cessation of creation on the first Sabbath.

However, it is not clear that the nature of our Sabbath rest authentically resembles the Divine cessation of creation. Our Sabbath rest is defined by the prohibition of creative work (melekhet machshevet). This, in turn, is further defined by 39 primary categories of creative activity associated with the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness, and the derivatives of those 39 major categories. To be sure, the transfer of fire and the 39 major categories of prohibited Sabbath activities, and the sub-categories of the 39, are scripturally mandated. They are based on the juxtaposition of the imperative of Sabbath observance with the account of the commencement of the building of the Sanctuary and its appurtenances (Ex. 31:12-18; 35:2-3). This work was of the highest importance, since it was dedicated to the service of the Lord. Notwithstanding, it was not to be regarded as being more important than the observance of the Sabbath, and was not to supersede it.

But the creative activity of God did not resemble the activities involved in the construction of the Sanctuary. These were all physical, whereas God created by means of the creative fiat, through speech: “And God said…And God said, etc.” Accordingly, the Divine cessation from creation must have been the absence of speech, silence. Therefore, to bear accurate witness to God’s Sabbath, we should have been  required to desist from speaking on the seventh day.

Why were we not? How can our Sabbath observance more closely resemble God’s first Sabbath? How can we bear witness to God’s Sabbath?

The classical Jewish definition of the human is chai medabber-a living creature that speaks. The Bible describes the creation of Adam as follows: “And He [God] breathed into his [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and he [Adam] became a living soul (Gen.2: 7). The ancient Aramaic rendition of the phrase, “and he [Adam] became a living soul” is:  “And he became a speaking soul.” Our uniqueness as humans consists precisely in our ability to communicate in speech. For God to have required us to stop speaking on the Sabbath would be asking us to surrender our very humanity, to deny the unique gift of verbal communication bestowed on us by God Himself. How, then, can we best approximate God’s Sabbath?

The prophet Isaiah suggests the beginning of an answer to this question:” If you turn your foot away from Sabbath rest; from doing what you desire on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, making  the holy [day] of the Lord honored, and honor it by not doing what you usually do or [striving] to achieve what you desire, nor speaking [how you usually] speak [me-metzo cheftzcha ve-dabber davar], then shall you take delight in the Lord.” (Isaiah 58: 13-14).

One aspect of our Sabbath observance that is delightful to God is dabber davar, refraining from our usual patterns of speech. This cannot simply mean that we should not use foul language. Foul language is never appropriate. Whatever the societal standard, filthy and vulgar language may not be spoken by Jews. It is forbidden as nivul peh, and is, unfortunately, ubiquitous and “normal” in the media. Nor can it mean avoiding gossip and slander, which are independent prohibitions.

I believe that dabber davar has two implications for Sabbath observance, one negative and the other positive. It prohibits business or work related conversation. Yiddish-speaking Jews would often jokingly introduce this kind of conversation with the phrase: “Nit af Shabbos geret—[We should not really be talking this way on the Sabbath].” If the talk focuses on activities that are not permitted on The Sabbath, the talk is, itself, forbidden. This is the negative connotation of dabber davar.[See: Zohar, Bereishit 34a "This dibbur is called Shabbat...the conversation of the workday weekis forbidden on Shabbat"] 

Positively, dabber davar requires the Sabbath to be sanctified with sacred speech, with words of prayer, singing zemirot [hymns] and the study of Torah. The Sabbath table is elevated from being merely another meal, to a sacred convocation, punctuated by blessings, songs and the involvement of the family in Torah study and exploration. This truly makes “the Sabbath a delight, making the holy [day] of the Lord honored.”

The chai medabber, the creature divinely endowed with speech, cannot be expected to emulate God’s Sabbath by refraining from speaking. But we can do so by transforming the way we speak on God’s holy day.

 This transformation should also impact our working week. The Fourth Utterance, taken literally, declares: “Remembering [Zakhor] the Sabbath to sanctify it.” The sages take the continuous remembering of the Sabbath during the other days of the week as a requirement of ongoing mindfulness of the sanctity of the Sabbath. This is a prerequisite for making it holy on the seventh day.

How can we achieve this end? By infusing the workweek with the sanctity of Sabbath speech. Besides avoiding ugly language, gossip and slander, we should punctuate our days with words of prayer and Torah.

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