Parashat K’doshim 5784

9 May 2024 – 1 Iyyar 5784

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah


This week, we are reading the parashah that is at the heart of the Torah: K’doshim (Leviticus chapters 19 and 20). Known in English as ‘the Holiness code’, the majority of the commandments outlined in Leviticus 19 concern ethical behaviour and our relationships with others. Progressive Jews are particularly enamoured of Leviticus 19 for this reason. Indeed, on Yom Kippur, both Liberal and Reform congregations read Leviticus 19, rather than the traditional text assigned to the day, Leviticus 18, from the previous portion, Acharei Mot, which is preoccupied with prohibited sexual acts. As it happens, K’doshim concludes in Leviticus 20, with a reprise of these prohibitions.

Rather than re-examine K’doshim’s ethical teachings, my reflections here concern two verses about Shabbat in Leviticus 19. We read (verse 3):

You shall revere, each person, their mother and their father; and keep My Sabbaths. I am the Eternal your God.

And (verse 30):

You shall keep My Sabbaths and revere my Sanctuary [mikdashi]. I am the Eternal.

My focus is on teasing out of these verses the significance of Shabbat, beginning with the comments of four of the most influential mediaeval commentators.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (b. Tudela, Spain, 1092) points out that verse 3 ‘corresponds to the fourth and fifth Commandments’ – the fourth being about Shabbat (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), and the fifth about honouring parents (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16).

The comment of Rashi (Rabbi Sh’lomoh Yitzchaki, b. Troyes, France, 1040) draws out the implications of the juxtaposition between revering parents and keeping Shabbat: ‘The law [to keep Shabbat] follows immediately to indicate that if a child is ordered by their father to desecrate the Sabbath, he is not to be obeyed, and similarly with the other commands.’

Turning to the second verse about Shabbat in Leviticus 19, Obadiah ben Ya’akov Sforno (b. Cesena, Italy, c. 1475) draws attention to the plural form: ‘My Sabbaths’, suggesting that this implies that the festivals are included. Sforno’s comment is underlined in the festival calendar in Emor (Leviticus 23), where Shabbat provides the model.

Meanwhile, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, b. Gerona, Spain, 1194) comments on the conjunction of the two statements – keeping Shabbat and revering the Sanctuary: ‘The law of Shabbat is equal to all the commandments of the Torah, its desecration implying a denial that God created the universe.’

All of these interpretations emphasise the primacy of ‘keeping’ Shabbat. Ramban’s observation reminds us that the significance of Shabbat lies first and foremost in its sacred origins. The concept of the sacred is introduced in the Torah in connection with Shabbat, which is mentioned

for the first time in the account of the completion of the work of Creation. We read at Genesis 2:3:

Then God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it [va-yikaddeish oto], because on it, He ceased [shavat] from all His work which God had created to do.

To ‘sanctify’ is to ‘set apart’; that is what the Hebrew root, Kuf Dalet Shin essentially means. God’s ceasing from the work of Creation on the seventh day as a rationale for the observance of Shabbat is stated explicitly in the Exodus version of the Shabbat Commandment (20:10a; 11):

The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Eternal your God, in it you should do any work … For in six days the Eternal heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Eternal blessed the Sabbath day, and sanctified it [va-y’kad’sheihu]

The Exodus version of the Shabbat commandment begins with the exhortation, Zachor, ‘Remember’, while the opening word of the Deuteronomy version is Shamor, ‘Keep’. To appreciate the full resonance of the obligation involved in ‘keeping’ Shabbat, let us turn from sacred time to sacred space; from the Sabbath to the Sanctuary, bearing in mind the second statement about Shabbat in K’doshim: ‘You shall keep My Sabbaths and revere my Sanctuary. I am the Eternal’ (Lev. 19:30).

The Hebrew root Shin Mem Reish, to ‘keep’, also means to ‘guard’. In the Book of Numbers, the imperative of ‘guarding’ is mentioned innumerable times in the context of the Levites’ responsibilities in connection with the Sanctuary. This is the first reference, translated literally (Num.1.53b):

V’sham’ru ha-l’viyyim et mishmeret mishkan ha-eidut.

The Levites shall keep [verb: v’sham’ru] guard [noun: mishmeret] of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

When we read this verse, we hear echoes of a similar formulation in connection with the Israelites’ responsibility for keeping Shabbat. As he read in Exodus 31:16a:

V’sham’ru v’nei Yisraeil et-ha-Shabbat …

The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath …

The Israelites/Jewish people are exhorted in the Torah to ‘keep’ / ‘guard’ the sacred time that is the Sabbath in the same way as the Levites were appointed to ‘guard’ the sacred space that was the mikdash/mishkan. It is for this reason that it is traditional to speak of an individual being shomeir (masculine)/shomeret (feminine) Shabbat; a ‘guard of the Sabbath’, an expression that appears in two verses in the Book of Isaiah 56.2; 6 (plural), and in the Shabbat piyyut, ‘poem’, Barukh El Elyon (attributed to Barukh ben Samuel of Mainz, c.1150-1221). Interestingly, it is not found in the Mishnah or the Talmud.

The Torah teaches that the Israelites are guardians of the seventh day that is set apart from the six working days. By setting apart the seventh day, the Jewish people, simultaneously, fulfils its purpose as a people set apart for God. As we read at the beginning of K’doshim (Lev.19.2):

You shall be holy [k’doshim], for I, YHWH, your God, I am holy [kadosh].

Having explored the two ‘Shabbat’ verses in K’doshim, we are left with questions as Progressive Jews that go deeper than how we understand ‘keeping’ Shabbat today: Do we subscribe to the vision of our task as a people expressed in this famous injunction? Is being ‘holy’ as God is ‘holy’ the rationale for our Shabbat observance as Progressive Jews? Do we still regard the Jewish people as ‘set apart’?

Share this Thought for the Week