Six Days Shall You Work

Shabbat is important, yet our behavior during the other six days is no less a part of religious life.

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The talmudic phrase bitul Torah, literally the “cancellation of Torah,” refers to the time one spends occupied with the world at large, away from Jewish text study. Chol, literally “profane,” refers to the six days of the week before Shabbat. Such language suggests that religious life takes place only within the temporal boundaries of ritual.
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This notion is problematic and spiritually impoverished. Religious life is not a series of proscribed acts separated by spans of mundanity. To the deeply religious person, spiritual life is continuous. Moments of ritual dust off the soul and propel the individual into the following hours with renewed awareness and intention.

Parashat Vayakhel reminds us that religiosity transcends ritual. Moses addresses the whole Israelite community for the first time since his dramatic return from Mount Sinai. He briefly commands the nation to observe Shabbat (Exodus 35:2-3) and then launches into a long, detailed speech about the construction of the Mishkan.

The rest of Parashat Vayakhel, and much of Parshat Pekudei, are devoted to this grand project and document the overwhelming generosity of the Israelite community to complete it. Moses’ short instruction about the holy seventh day virtually dissolves in the details of construction--building, melting, welding, and other acts that are forbidden on Shabbat. Just as the vast majority of life occurs outside of ritual acts, the vast majority of this parsahah focuses on the activities of chol.

The Mitzvah to Work

Moses suggests that our work in the world before and after Shabbat is no less important than Shabbat itself. “Six days you shall do work,” he commands, “and on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Thus, the first mitzvah that Moses articulates after Mount Sinai is that we should engage in work for six-sevenths of every week. Insofar as Shabbat is a call for rest on Saturdays, it is also a call for action on all other days. From this perspective, the true observance of Shabbat is an ever-flowing, lifelong affair that usually consists of working.

This is not to say that Parashat Vayakhel disregards or undervalues religious ritual itself. Moses’ few words about the observance of Shabbat could hardly be more emphatic. “Whoever does any work [melachah] on it [Shabbat] shall die,” (Exodus 35:2) he warns. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, Moses prefaces his speech about the Mishkan with a warning about Shabbat in order to remind the Israelites that the Mishkan does not supersede Shabbat.

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute, and The Conservative Yeshiva.