Biblical Sources on Shabbat and the Perfected World

The Bible itself is the source of the notion that Shabbat is a foretaste of the perfected world that is yet to come.

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This article, like "Shabbat as a Preview of the Perfected World," is excerpted with permission from the Fall 1967 issue (Vol. 16, no. 4) of Judaism, published by the American Jewish Congress. The concepts of a messianic era and a "world to come" are sharply distinguished by some Jewish thinkers, less so by others. In Rabbi Friedman's usage here, the terms overlap.

One perforce asks: What is the source of this aggadah [i.e., the statement and belief that Shabbat is a foretaste of the World to Come]? Is it merely a rabbinic conceit, a product of the freewheeling poetic fancy of the masters of the midrash [the interpretive tradition, especially through the creation of narrative], like so much else to be found in its imaginative palaces? We suggest that its actual source, its point d'appui, is to be sought not in rabbinic fancy, for which there is no accounting, but in the biblical text itself. The reiterated, even if only implied, biblical parallels between the Sabbath of Genesis--Adam's life in the Garden of Eden before his expulsion--and the end of days could not have been lost on the [ancient rabbis]. Consciously or unconsciously these parallels--the latter time as the return of the Edenic conditions--must have registered on the rabbinic mind. 

Material Abundance and the Meeting of Our Needs

The equivalences and parallels are unmistakable. A glance at them should prove convincing. One of the striking aspects of the messianic time, according to the Prophets, will be an extraordinary material abundance. Amos (9:13,14) declares, "Behold, the days are coming, saith the Lord, and the plowman shall follow upon the reaper." The Prophet Joel (4:19) asserts, "And it shall come to pass, that the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall run with milk." Such descriptions are to be found repeatedly in Isaiah (6, 7, 30:23), in Jeremiah (31:12), and in Ezekiel (34:13,14). Isaiah adds a distinctive original note to the effect that in the latter days, Israel's work will be performed by strangers, "And strangers shall arise and graze your flock, and the sons of strangers shall be your fieldmen and vintners" (61:6,7; 60:10).

In sum, in the prophetic messianic vision, man's material needs will be available without labor and toil, as they were to Adam in the Garden of Eden--hence, the halakhic principle (mukhan [or "ready"]), that only that food may be partaken of which was prepared prior to the coming in of the Sabbath. Though this principle is based on a biblical verse (Exodus 16:23), the parallel between the halakhic principle of mukhan and the ready availability of Adam's sustenance in the Garden of Eden, a phenomenon destined to reoccur in the messianic time, is too striking to be overlooked.

It is significant, in this context, that two of the three passages in which Isaiah refers to the Sabbath are linked by the prophet with the end of days (Isaiah 56:1-7; 58:13,14; 66:22-24). Modern biblical commentators, notably Benno Jacob and M.D. Cassutto, have demonstrated that similarity of phrasing even in seemingly unrelated themes invariably points to some inner implied connection between the apparently discrete themes. Thus, it is no mere coincidence that Isaiah employs the words "delight" (oneg) and "honor" (kavod) in his descriptions of both the Sabbath and the end of days ("And thou shalt call the Sabbath delight…and honor it" 58:13; "And you shall delight in the glow of its honor" 66:11). The implication is clear. The delight and joy that will mark the end of days is made available here and now by the Sabbath.

Living in Harmony

Material plenty is, however, but one of the aspects of the latter time that recalls Adam's Edenic existence. Before his disobedience, Adam lives in unbroken harmony with all existence, with God, with Eve, with nature and the beasts of the field. With his sin, a profound split occurred, setting him off in tension and conflict not alone with all being, but even with himself. The split within is the consciousness of guilt. The essential meaning of the messianic time is the overcoming, the resolution of that split and the restoration of the primordial harmony which man once knew. Our present purpose, in referring to the biblical exposition of the messianic theme, is limited to those aspects of it, personal and collective, which are adumbrated by the Sabbath.

The change in nature--its bringing forth thorns and thistles, occasioned by Adam's disobedience--is the signal that henceforth man would find his bread only "by the sweat of his brow." The implication is that, in his primordial state, his sustenance required no such toil--a state of affairs destined to return in the end of days. The delight that man will know in that time was already his portion in the Garden of Eden. Had not God provided the Garden with "every tree pleasant to sight and good to eat"?

The river that went forth from Eden, rendering its fruitfulness independent of the vagaries of rainfall, finds its counterpart in the rivers and streams that will miraculously spring up in the latter time. "On every high mountain and on every exalted hill there will be streams and watercourses" (Isaiah 30:25). "And a spring shall come forth from the House of God and water the valley of Shittim" (Joel 4:18).

The peace that once obtained between Adam and the animals (hence, the limitation of his food to the vegetation of the field and the fruits of the tree) will be restored in the end of days. "And I shall make for you on that day a covenant with the beast of the field and with the fowl of heaven and with the creeping things of the earth" (Hosea 2:20). The Messianic promise of universal peace between the nations is but the restoration of the peace of Eden. Murder occurs only after the expulsion from Eden.

Immortality and Longevity

Whether Adam, according to the Garden of Eden story, would have known immortality had he not eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is a point of disagreement among biblical commentators. For reasons whose exposition would take us a bit far afield, I am convinced that the former is the case. Somewhat similarly, man is promised that, in the end of days, he will attain to an extraordinary longevity ("For he who will die at a hundred will be deemed but a youth" [Isaiah 65:20]).

The Appearance of a Supernal Light

The most remarkable feature of the latter time, in the prophetic conception, will be the appearance of a light more refulgent than the sun. "And the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be as the light of seven days" (Isaiah 30:20). It has long since been pointed out that the prophet here alludes to an ancient midrash to the effect that the first seven days of creation were bathed in a supernal light more brilliant than the sun, which was then hidden away after Adam's sin. The prophet would have it that with the coming of the latter time, that supernal light will reappear.

Physical Perfection

One final parallel between primordial time and final time ought to be noted. Repeatedly, the prophets assure us that in the final time all human physical infirmities will vanish. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf will be opened, the halt shall skip like the ram, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing" (Isaiah 35:5-6). Though Genesis offers no indication of Adam's physical state at the time of his creation, it may be assumed that he who came directly from the hand of God emerged in perfect physical condition, without fault or blemish.

In summary, it may be said that there is hardly an aspect of the prophetic image of the end of days that is not already foreshadowed in the Torah's description of primordial time. The Sabbath is at once the climax of that primordial time and the paradigm of the future time. Therefore, man should so conduct himself on the Sabbath as if the future time were already at hand. It is only on the basis of this aggadic-mythological concept that one can understand the ancient halakhah of the Sabbath. Though many, if not most, of these halakhic views were rejected in the final formulation of the normative halakhah, their very existence points to the biblically-rooted concept which they seek to concretize.

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Rabbi Theodore Friedman, Ph.D. (1908-1992), served for many years as rabbi of congregations in Jackson Heights, New York, and South Orange, New Jersey. He later lived in Jerusalem, where he taught Talmud to students from the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (Buenos Aires).