Shabbos shows up numerous times throughout the Torah. One of the most familiar times that it is mentioned is contained in this week’s parsha in the following posuk:
Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.
This verse is, at its core, a nicely worded expression suggesting that the Jewish people guard the Shabbos, and pass it on from generation to generation, father to son, as an heirloom of sorts. Shabbos is thus an eternal covenant between Man and God.
The Torah then continues to describe Shabbos:
For six days God worked and created the world, and on the seventh day He rested.
Certainly, being a part of kiddush, this is a posuk that all have either heard, or recited, hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Yet, an accurate translation, and understanding, eludes us. While what appears above is indeed a translation, it is not quite accurate. What does the word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ”, which appears at the very end of the verse, actually mean?
One could, as I did above, merge the word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” with the preceding word “שָׁבַת” and translate them both, together, to mean simply “He [God] rested.” But that is not remotely accurate. Instead, as many do, one can translate “שָׁבַת” as “He rested” and “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” as “and He rejuvenated” and then hope that no one asks you what that means. Needless to say, despite its popularity and frequent recitation with conviction, this posuk is not an easy one to explain.
God Never Tires
Rashi (31:17) attempts to solve these problems by explaining the end of the posuk to mean that by God “resting”, He “rejuvenated”. Through the “שָׁבַת” God came into a state of “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ”, as it were. As proof for this assertion, Rashi points out that in earlier verses the Torah mandates that one’s household should rest on Shabbos as well. The term the posuk employs there is also “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” suggesting Rashi’s technical explanation of “resting” and “rejuvenation.”
There are a number of issues with even this explanation of Rashi, though:
- The words “שָׁבַת” and “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” are essentially redundant. They appear to be two words conveying precisely the same idea of “resting.”
- The root of “נפש” is almost always connected with a metaphysical or spiritual concept. Rashi’s explanation of the term is so decidedly un-spiritual that it borders on being unsettling. Indeed, this leads us straight to our final, and largest, point…
- How could we possibly apply the same term to our households (including our maidservants, animals, even ourselves) as we do to God? According to Rashi’s explanation, the term “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” is a totally human concept. How could the Torah possibly ascribe the same thing to our households as it does to God?
Putting aside the first two problems for a moment, there is a more fundamental issue to be found within Rashi’s comment as well. Rashi quotes a posuk from Isaiah (40:28) that states that God never tires. Indeed, this is a well-known axiom of Jewish faith; God is not physical in any way, and thus is incapable of “getting tired” like humans.
How, then, can our posuk seem to imply the very opposite?
Indeed, Rashi answers his own problem by stating that the Torah often anthropomorphizes God, and that, despite on a technical level being somewhat heretical, this is simply the way the Torah speaks. Thus, according to Rashi, the word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” can very well mean “rejuvenated,” but it should be prefaced by a subconscious “as if.”
R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, however, proposes that the word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” actually should be rendered as “soulful.” The root “נפש” refers to the singularity of a thing. It is, in other words, what is left over when all else is gone; the essence. The word “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ”, then, would mean to venture into who you really are. For clarification, R’ Hirsch explains that the opposite of “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” would be that which we project outwards to others, and that which people see.
Thus, “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” is what we do when we relax; when we return back to our true selves both physically and spiritually. After depletion of resources, adrenaline, and the onset of fatigue, we retreat into ourselves so as to revitalize and recharge. One must rejuvenate in order to return to the נפש. This is what resting is.
God is not personified by the Creation of the world. This is simply a projection of God, an expression. God “rested” on the seventh day in that He returned to His essence. The revealed God, the God of Creation, is by definition not His essence. Upon completion of Creation, God stopped working, and returned to His hidden state, His true self. This is what “וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ” means.
The word נפש is first used in Bereishis (1:21) to refer to “creeping things” that inhabit the Earth. God then breathed the נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים into Man, and Man became a נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה. The glaring oddity here is the implication that both Man and Animal — creeping things, at that — share the same core. God breathed the נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים into Man, and this resulted in Man being reduced to the very same thing as an animal? How are we to understand this?
R’ Moshe Benovitz points out that using R’ Hirsch’s understanding of the word נפש, all makes sense. As explained, נפש is simply the essence of a thing. Surely, all creatures have an essence. Man’s essence, however, is the נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים of God. Man’s essence is the נשמה — but Man does, like everything, possess an essence.
R’ Benovitz explains that, like God, it is Man’s duty on Shabbos to return to his essence. It is man’s duty to rest in the true meaning of the word — to rejuvenate, וַיִּנָּפַֽשׁ, as explained in the posuk. There is a Biblical prohibition of traveling on Shabbos, of leaving one’s home. What defines Shabbos is staying within one’s home, staying within one’s self.
Shabbos is a time to project nothing; a time to return to one’s essence.