by Rabbi David Malca, Judaic Studies Teacher
Parashat Vayakel begins by reiterating the precept of Shabbat – the Sabbath. More specifically, the prohibition of doing any work on Shabbat. But before speaking of this Mitzvah, there is the introductory verse stating ויקהל משה — “and Moses assembled the entire community of the children of Israel, and said to them”: אלה הדברים — “these are the words that God commanded to do.”
Now our sages note that the second half of this first verse is directly related to the content of the next verse speaking of Shabbat. For the words אלה הדברים offer a numerical equivalent to the number 39, indicating the exact number of the types of work, or labor, that is forbidden on Shabbat.
But what of the first half of the verse? Why are we told here that Moses assembled the entire people? This question was sensed already by our sages and they comment:
From the very beginning of the Torah until the very end, we do not find a single Parasha that begins with the word Vayakel, “and he assembled”, except for this Parasha. This comes to teach us that God says to Moses, gather together great assemblies and explain before all of them the laws of Shabbat, so that future generations, they too will learn from you to organize large assemblies every Shabbat, which are to gather in the study halls, in order to teach and instruct Israel the laws of the Torah.
Vayakel – The concept of assembling on the Shabbat – thus teaches us an important principle with regards to Shabbat.
Generally, we know 3 things related to Shabbat. It is a holy day, altogether different from the rest of the week. Hence, we are commanded to remember and observe the Shabbat day in order to sanctify it.
- We remember and sanctify it by making Kiddush at the very beginning of the day, and Havdalah at the very end.
- We observe and guard by obeying the prohibitions of not doing any one of the 39 kinds of labor which are permitted during the six week days, but are prohibited on Shabbat.
- Thirdly, scripture ordains that you shall call the Shabbat Oneg- a delight. On the Shabbat it is a Mitzvah to eat and drink, to enjoy fine beverages and delicious food, to rest and to relax.
The passive observance of not working and the physical delights of rest, food, and drink, are not all. These are for the benefit of the body, so that even our physical reality will enjoy the Shabbat and await it with anticipation. But man also has a soul, and the soul too needs its sustenance, its food. The soul too needs its kind of food and delights if it is to sustain and support us during the 6 work days when each of us is involved and preoccupied with our work and business affairs.
The 7th day of the week is not only Shabbat, the rest day, but Shabbat la Hashem – A Shabbat unto God. This, then, is the message of the first word of this Parasha. Vayakel, gather the people together on the Shabbat, for this is a day set aside to step out of the worldly preoccupations of the whole week, this is a day to relax from our daily affairs and involvement. A day to sit back and enjoy. But by the same token, this is the day that provides an extraordinary opportunity to recharge our spiritual batteries. A day to think of our spiritual reality, of our ultimate purpose and meaning as human beings, and as Jews. A day on which we are free to think of our creator, the Master of the universe, by means of Torah and Tefillah, study and prayer. This principle applies especially to laymen, to people unable to devote too much time during the week to the service of Hashem. Shabbat allows them greater concentration on prayer and the study of Torah.
Moreover, doing so together with others, in the context of Vayakel – public assemblies – lends greater quality to our Torah and prayers. And also strengthens our communal bonds and our sense of responsibility for others. The Shabbat, then, is a unique gift from heaven. It reinforces our identity, makes us conscious of who we are and what we are, and keeps us aware of this while we are preoccupied with our work and business affairs during the six days of the week that follow.