Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
The Days of Preparation
The Halakhah in the Parashah
This week I was speaking with one of the teachers in the Bet Midrash of the CY (Conservative Yeshiva), Matthew Anisfeld. Matthew is teaching the Laws of Pesah in his afternoon halakhah class. He mentioned to me that he finds it remarkable that most of Tractate Pesahim discusses what happens on the 14th of Nissan, the day before Pesah begins. We have bedikat hametz (the search for hametz), and biur hametz (destroying the hametz), and then later in the tractate we learn about the sacrifice, which was prepared and slaughtered on the 14th. While Pesah (as we know it) does not begin till the 15th of Nissan, the day of preparation is a ritual unto itself.
While slightly less prominent, the same can be said about Shabbat. Shabbat, of course, begins only at the setting of the sun (unless you’re Rabbenu Tam, but I won’t go into that here). Shabbat prohibitions begin after sunset. But anyone who has ever experienced Shabbat, or visited a home in which Shabbat was being observed, knows that Erev Shabbat, the day before Shabbat, is a ritual unto itself. The food must be bought and then cooked. The house should be cleaned. The table has to be set. Family that lives far away is sometimes called to wish a Shabbat Shalom. Everyone has to shower and put on nice clothes. A house preparing for Shabbat can be a chaotic place, especially for those with young children, but this too seems to be part of the Shabbat experience.
The origins of this actually lie in a reading of our parashah. Exodus 15:25 contains a hint that some laws are going to be given in our parashah when it relates, “there He did set them a statute and a law.” According to R. Joshua in the Mekhilta, a midrashic work on Shemot, the “statute” is a reference to Shabbat. And in the very next chapter we have our second encounter with the notion of Shabbat (the first was in Bereshit). But, before we are commanded to not collect the manna on Shabbat, we hear a commandment about what to do on the sixth day, “And it shall be on the sixth day, they shall prepare what they have brought.” Read this way, there are two days of Shabbat observance–the sixth day in which we prepare and the seventh day in which we rest.
On Shabbat 117b R. Hisda uses this verse to create a normative rule that one must actively prepare for Shabbat, “Rav Ḥisda said: A person should always rise early on Friday in order to prepare all of the expenditures for Shabbat, as it is written, ‘And it shall be on the sixth day, and they will prepare that which they have brought’ (Exodus 16:5). A few pages later we read of how a few sages actually prepared for Shabbat. For instance, Rav Safra would roast the head of an animal, Rava would salt a fish, Rav Huna would kindle lamps, Rav Hisda would chop up beets. Others would prepare a large amount of wood for a fire. The fact that the Talmud mentions these practices implies that this is more than just “cooking dinner.” There is a ritual aspect to preparing for Shabbat–it in itself is part of the mitzvah of Shabbat.
Following suit, towards the very beginning of the Shulkhan Arukh’s laws of Shabbat, R. Yosef Karo codifies these passages into law (Orah Hayyim 250): “A person should arise early on the sixth day to prepare for Shabbat; even if he has many servants to serve him he should find something small to do, for the honor (of Shabbat). We see this with Rav Hisda who would cut vegetables finely; Rabah and Rav Yosef, who would chop wood; Rabbi Zeira who would light the flame; and Rav Nachman, who would clean the house and replace the weekday cutlery with cutlery designated for Shabbat. We can emulate these people and one should not say: ‘It is unbecoming of me,’ for this is the honor of Shabbat.”
Today we might think of these behaviors as spiritual practices–urging us to engage in a mindful preparation for Shabbat. In our day to day reality, it is easy to become dulled by the tiresome preparations for Shabbat. Who among us likes going to the supermarket? While some people do enjoy cooking, for many it’s a chore. Cleaning the house is almost certainly an even less popular task. Perhaps some of these practices will become slightly less burdensome when we channel the joy felt by these sages in preparing for Shabbat, and when we think to ourselves that in our Shabbat preparations we are not just enabling Shabbat to happen–we are actually performing a mitzvah in its own right.