The commandment to keep Shabbat appears 10 times in the Torah. Often we do not understand exactly what that means. “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” (Exod 20:8 et al). Do no work because, “in six days Adonai created Heaven and earth and on the seventh day God rested” (Exod 20:11). We are vaguely aware of all kinds of things we don’t do on Shabbat, some of which seem a little ridiculous to our modernist point of view.
“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exod 35:2). The appearance of Shabbat in this week’s Parashah seems to be a non sequitur. Before we get to this point Moses is re-receiving the Torah from God. He comes down the mountain with his Hi-Pro glow, gathers the Israelites, and reiterates the commandment for keeping Shabbat just before going into the description of collection of goods for building the Tabernacle, hiring inspired contractors for building the tabernacle, then actually building the Tabernacle. The Shabbat restriction seems out of place.
The Rabbis of the Talmud take this out-of-place (which they cannot believe is out of place) pericope to serve as a reminder that the work that is prohibited on Shabbat includes all of the work necessary for building the Tabernacle, from paying for it to laying the finishing touches. They come up with 39 activities that are forbidden on Shabbat, and many of the restrictions that do not get specific mention in Torah are derivatives of the idea that the Israelites are reminded of Shabbat just before they begin the Tabernacle’s construction.
When we step back and think about exactly what the Israelites are engaged in right now, it becomes clear that the Shabbat reminder fits perfectly here, as do the 39 restrictions. The Israelites are about to build the Tabernacle, the place where God’s earthly presence will dwell. It was the single most important thing they would build in their life time. They spent years building for the Egyptian Pharaohs, building places of worship for idolaters. Now they finally have an opportunity to build something for their God, for their worship. God knows that the Israelites will put everything they have into the building of their own Tabernacle, and Moses reminds them of the command to keep Shabbat so that they do not get carried away and forget why they are building the Tabernacle in the first place.
Even for the modernist, Shabbat is critical in the scope of living a Jewish life. Shabbat is the day that God took to rest because God knows that we have the tendency to get lost in our work. We do not take all of our vacation days, we don’t take breaks or stop for meals, we go to work sick, we push ourselves to the limit. Written into the system is a day to focus on ourselves and our families. We do not do what we do on the other six days. We spend time with each other or alone, relaxing, learning, reading for pleasure, and shifting from the mundane into the holy. Even if what we are engaged in is the most important thing to us, Shabbat supercedes.