Our Torah portion for this week begins with a reminder of the command to keep Shabbat. Also, the last thing we read after Moses receives the instruction for the building of the Tabernacle on the mountain is a command to keep Shabbat (Exo 31:12–17). Moreover, in the chapters that describe the actual building of the Tabernacle, the story begins with the command to keep Shabbat (Exo 35:1–3). In the earlier passage, we can see the relationship of the Tabernacle to creation and how Shabbat is the capstone of the building of the Tabernacle. In the present passage however, the command to keep Shabbat is at the beginning. One thing we know for sure is that the command to keep Shabbat was necessary for the building of the Tabernacle!
Nahum Sarna in his commentary on Exodus says this: “The Tabernacle enshrines the concept of the holiness of space; the Sabbath embodies the concept of the holiness of time. The latter takes precedence over the former, and the work of the Tabernacle must yield each week to the Sabbath rest” (Sarna, p. 201). Both the Tabernacle and Shabbat have the purpose of providing entrance to the presence of God. The Tabernacle requires priestly intercession and that one come with a particular gift. Shabbat requires no sacrifice nor mediation. Shabbat is a time for sharing rest with God. Heschel calls it a "palace in time" (Heschel, p. 12). One must travel to the sanctuary. On Shabbat, the sanctuary comes to us and we enter into it wherever we are.
The command to keep Shabbat is added to the Tabernacle to teach us that if we are going to truly interact with God through the Tabernacle, we must be sure to enter his rest. There are very few Biblical regulations concerning Shabbat. We miss the point of Shabbat if we strangle it with many legal regulations. Shabbat is a time each week when the visible and invisible parts of our lives interact with God. In this way it is a taste of the Olam HaBa (World to Come).
Shabbat is sometimes called a "bride" and a "delight". These terms and the liturgy that accompanies them help us to understand that Shabbat is not about rules and regulations but about relationship. To sanctify Shabbat, we enjoy it by sharing meals with others, gathering for worship and fellowship, and enjoying the presence of God and resting. It can mean spending time with family and friends, or doing something enriching with others. If we are alone, it means recognizing that the day is different from others and communing with God wherever we are. No matter where we are on Shabbat, it is still Shabbat. If we have obligations that are necessary for health and wellbeing, we still can commune with God as it is the time which is holy and not a certain place.
In Genesis 2:2, we read that God completed his work. If he completed it on the seventh day, how could it be a day of rest? Rabbinic literature suggests that on the seventh day, God created his resting place which is a place of peace and tranquility. When we experience Shabbat, we share his resting and dwelling place for a day and experience his peace and tranquility. We also read in Exo 31:17 that on the seventh day God was refreshed. The word “refreshed” is the verbal form of "nephesh" which means our "soul" or "being." According to Nahum Sarna, it means a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one's being (Sarna p. 202).
In the Book of Hebrews, the writer equates faithfulness to Yeshua and dwelling in Shabbat rest. In Messiah, we live in Shabbat. We live in the dwelling place of God and share his tranquility and peace. Therefore, each week, Shabbat is a physical manifestation of our present relationship with Yeshua. Just as we live in a perpetual state of shalom with God, our physical being needs a day of an “infusion of vigor”. May we enjoy the gift of Shabbat!
For an enriching study of the meaning of Shabbat, I suggest reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which is available here.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1951.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus: JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991.