Thursday, September 18, 2014

Shamor and Zakhor: Competing Frames for Shabbat in the Torah and Today

In the Torah, there are two divergent formulations of the Ten Commandments—one in Exodus and another in Deuteronomy.  The difference between them regarding Shabbat is particularly striking:  Exodus maintains that the goal of Shabbat is “זכור”/“be mindful of”, and links its observance to the Creation of the world in seven days, while Deuteronomy begins with the word “שמור”/“guard” and grounds Shabbat in being freed from oppression in Egypt.  And yet our tradition insists that they were said “בדיבור אחד”/”in one utterance”.  What could this assertion mean?  And why was this synthesis so important to our Sages?
Deeper investigation reveals that these two formulations actually represent two strong, competing visions of what Shabbat is all about: שמור/Exodus and זכור/Creation.
For the שמור model, Shabbat is all about taking home the lessons of being a slave and making sure that the economically disadvantaged get a chance to rest.  This rationale calls us away from the labors of the week so that we can enjoy rest and bodily rejuvenation.
For the זכור model, we are called instead to experience a Shabbat world that is fully created.  By imitating God’s stopping and resting, we also acknowledge that we did not create the world and therefore do not have the right to dominate it without limits.  It is our day to draw close to God, not to serve our ends or to tamper with God’s handiwork.
These two competing models vied for prominence throughout the Second Temple period, often taken up by different Jewish groups in dramatic and extreme ways.  Against this backdrop, the rabbinic refusal to allow one of the Torah’s messages about Shabbat to trample the other is even more striking.
Throughout the history of halakhah, many religious authorities have grappled with this continuing tension, and many Jews today have instinctively developed only one of these frames and not the other.  So many Shabbat observances seem extreme or inappropriate when viewed through the lens of one of these frames alone, but when looked at from the opposite perspective start to make sense.  This piece explores the essence of the rabbinic Shabbat, which is an unfolding attempt to glean wisdom from the competing models of זכור and שמור, as well as from the corollary symphony of voices that make up this ever relevant area of halakhah.

For those who enjoy audio, have a listen as well.