YISRO (Exodus, 18:1-20:23) — “But Rabbi, How Come YOU Can Come to Work on Shabbos?!”

“Hey Rabbi!  I gotta talk to you!”

Steve was upset.  A college student trying to make a few dollars, he applied for a job as a waiter in our retirement community.  He joined a staff of young people who come to work every day to serve our residents their dinner.  While setting up their schedules, the head waitress told Steve, “No Steve.  You can’t come in those days.”  “Why not?”  “Because you’re Jewish.”  “So?”  “Uh, Steve, I think you better speak to the rabbi.”

Steve argued that he wanted to come in on Friday nights and Saturdays.  It wasn’t fair, he argued, to deprive him of the right to work.  “I’m not religious!” he said.  “I don’t keep Shabbos!”  I tried to explain to him that we, as a Jewish company, are not allowed to have Jews work for us on Shabbos.

[Actually, this Shabbos I will not be going to work.  I am leaving town Friday afternoon to perform a Bris in Manhattan Saturday morning.  (“There you go again, Rabbi, working on Saturday!”)]


Tomorrow morning we will read the Ten Commandments.  In the Fourth Commandment we will read the command to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”  (Exodus, 20:8)

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin points out that this Mitzvah is actually a “re-run.”  Three days after the splitting of the Red Sea, the Nation was given several Mitzvahs, including the Mitzvah of Shabbos.  (Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, quoted by Rashi on Exodus, 15:25)  This acceptance of Shabbos, writes Rabbi Sorotzkin, was a “Shabbos of Rest.”  Later, when the Israelites were told that Manna would not fall from Heaven on the Sabbath, was a “Shabbos of Holiness.”

Now, at the base of Mount Sinai, the Israelites were told once again to observe the Sabbath.  Why did they need to be told so many times?

Rabbi Sorotzkin explains that rest is much easier than holiness.  One does not need much convincing to accept the concept of taking a day off.  We were already taking one day off a week in Egypt.  Millions of people take Sundays off, whether or not they practice any particular religion.  How hard does a boss have to try to convince his employee to take a day off?

Holiness, on the other hand, is a different thing entirely.  On Shabbos we are supposed to speak differently than we do during the week.  We are not supposed to talk “shop” on Shabbos.  Our reading material should be different on Shabbos.  (It is highly questionable, for example, as to whether one is permitted to read newspapers on Shabbos.)   There are things we are not allowed to touch, and there are dozens of activities, many of them relaxing, that are forbidden.  This type of Shabbos, the Shabbos of Holiness, is something that we may be a bit more reluctant to accept.

Therefore, the Torah gave Shabbos a reinforcement in the Ten Commandments: 

Remember the Sabbath day TO KEEP IT HOLY.  Six days you will work, AND ACCOMPLISH ALL YOUR WORK, but the seventh day is Shabbos for G-d…. For in Six days G-d made the Heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the Seventh day.  Therefore G-d blessed the seventh day AND MADE IT HOLY.  (Ibid, Exodus, 20:8-11)

It is easy to take a day off on Saturday.  The hard part, the part that G-d wanted to emphasize, is the need to keep it holy.   The six-day work week (including Sunday!) is the time that G-d tells us to “accomplish all your work.”  After six days at the old grind, we should be happy to kick back and chill out.  The Torah therefore reminds us “but the seventh day is Shabbos for G-d.”

Shabbos is not a voluntary day off.  We don’t have the option of saying, “okay, I appreciate the break, but I’d rather come in and earn time and a half.”  Shabbos is the time we are supposed to focus on the fact that G-d created the world for us and gave us a mission.  We are supposed to use this time away from “accomplishing OUR work” to reflect upon G-d’s Commandments.  We are supposed to emulate G-d:  You shall be holy; for I, your G-d, am holy.  (Leviticus, 19:2)

Holiness is not an easy thing to accomplish.  For all of us, rabbis or otherwise, it is a full-time job.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.



“American Idol Worship – Does G-d Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” (2013)

Is it appropriate for players like Tim Tebow to make grand gestures of prayer to a Master of the World Who has His Hands full dealing with things that are much more important, like whether people who are out of work will find a way to make their mortgage payments?…

Read more.


“Ouch!” (2010)

Jethro, the high priest of Midian, was impressed.  His son-in-law, Moses,… had led his People out of Egypt.  He had led them triumphantly through the Red Sea, and presided over the defeat of the Amalekites who had attacked them.

Jethro heard about it all, and wanted to join Moses in celebrating G-d’s salvation …  Jethro brought offerings and sacrifices to G-d.

The miracles of the Exodus changed Jethro’s life.  He had already given up his life of idol worship, but had not yet found “the true religion.”  He now embraced Judaism…

But, something was amiss.  Jethro was ill at ease…

Read more.


“Modern-Day Prophecy” (2009)

… our people experienced more than a one-time prophecy at Mount Sinai.  The legacy that we possess as a result of that miraculous day is more than just the Torah itself.  The entire prophecy of the Revelation is permanently installed on our spiritual “hard drive.”  You and I stood at Mount Sinai, and to this day, that inspiration enables us to reject anything that is less than genuine Torah.   … If that prophecy works so well, why is there so much assimilation?  Why are we not all sustained in our religious devotion by the prophecy of seeing Moses communicate with G-d 3500 years ago?  …

Read more.


“But Rabbi, How Come YOU Can Come to Work on Shabbos?!”  (2007)

…I work for a large corporation with many employees.  Ironically, I am the only Jew in the company who’s allowed to “work” on Shabbos.

Yes, every Saturday, bright and early, I walk to work.  I go into the kitchen to make sure our food service staff is maintaining our kosher standards.  I go into our synagogue and oversee the Sabbath Services.   I make sure the appropriate prayers are recited, and I deliver a sermon.  (Sh-sh-sh!  Don’t tell anyone – sometimes my sermons are recycled Torah Talks! :-)) What am I doing at work?!…

Read more.


“Honor thy … Self!” (2005)

…  It has been pointed out that the Commandments on the first Tablet deal with man’s relationship with G-d, while the second Tablet addresses his relationship his fellow man.

… the explanation of “G-d-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #1 and “Humanity-Mitzvahs” on Tablet #2 is at least 90% accurate.  Where we run into trouble is at Commandment #5 — Honor your father and your mother.  The last time I checked, parents are human beings (although some teenagers might tend to disagree!)  What are parents doing on G-d’s Tablet?!  …

Read more.


“The Sword and the Stone” (2003)

…This prohibition goes further than banning the cutting of stone for the Altar.  It forbids any contact at all with iron.  The Altar was plastered twice a year; the plaster had to be applied with a nonmetallic applicator.  If a piece of iron so much as TOUCHED the Altar, it invalidated the Altar, and the stone needed to be replaced.

Isn’t this a bit much?  If you want to establish a symbolic link between a chisel cutting a stone and a sword cutting a person, that is understandable.  But a piece of iron TOUCHING the Altar?!  If a carpenter was doing repairs in the Temple, and his hammer accidentally brushed against the side of the Altar, why should the stones need to be replaced?…

Read more.


“Divine Patience and Human Acceptance” (2002)

…Sometimes G-d’s patience with Evil is difficult to understand.

A famous Jewish author has sold millions of books, claiming to explain why bad things happen to good people.  His basic theory is that G-d can’t help it. (R”L) This author describes G-d as an impotent, grandfatherly figure who is powerless to save people from disease and other tragedy.  The G-d, (or should I say, “god”) of this man’s theology is there as a shoulder to cry on; someone to turn to for inspiration; little more.

I call this approach “religious atheism.”  You don’t have to be angry at G-d and you don’t have to deny His existence. You can believe in Him; just pretend that He is confronted by powers that even He can’t overcome, and you can still be a “believer.”

It is very comforting.  The only problem is that it isn’t Judaism…

Read more.


“Hey, What About the Other 603?” (2001)

…There was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service…the rabbis of the Talmud removed it from the liturgy and banned public readings of the Ten Commandments…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on February 7, 2007 at 10:14 am  Leave a Comment  

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