Élan Reisner

The Sabbath’s Recreation


Illustration by Tom Tian


The Jewish “Oral Law,” the nearly boundless volume of rabbinic commentaries on the holy scripture (the Torah Shebichtav, the “Written Law”), is rife with paradox and parable. Indeed, these two rhetorical devices are essential to the toolbox of rabbinic hermeneutics. Interpretations frequently begin with one of a cast of rabbis locating a problem in a passage from the scripture (for example, a line that seems to stand in contradiction with another line elsewhere in the text), and raising the issue as an enigma in want of a solution. Then the rabbi and his discussion partners discuss the problem and offer readings that aim to assimilate the anomalous part into a richer and more comprehensive reading of the text as a whole. The process takes as axiomatic the absolute perfection of the text of the Torah. No grapheme is spurious, superfluous, or insignificant. For some rabbinic traditions, this even extends to the blank spaces between, around, and within graphemes. Each pixel of the text’s surface figures into the deep structure of its infinite totality. It is therefore the rabbi’s burden to demonstrate that what might seem like a senseless contradiction is actually a profound and necessary paradox. The favorite tool for this sort of demonstration is the parable, a brief story or image drawn from everyday experience that illuminates some contour of the text’s transcendental depth analogically (as below, so above).

Together, paradox and parable maintain the peculiar double relation between the Law’s “Oral” and “Written” aspects. On the one hand, rabbinic discourse comments upon the paradoxical surface of the scripture in order to interpret and expose its inner unity (the rabbi pronounces the scripture’s deep meaning, voices its unwritten vowels). On the other hand, the rabbi’s parable stands as a supplementary text for the Torah itself to interpret. The scripture “speaks” through the parable as the voice of the general law that speaks through—pronounces upon—a particular case: “...And therefore did King Solomon say: ‘A faithful woman I have not found’ (Eccl. 7.28).” (In ethical or didactic discourse, this is called the “moral” or “lesson” of the parable, but in the tongues of some other, perhaps less legitimate, strains of the Jewish legacy, it might be called the “punchline” of the joke or the “latent content” of the dream; to which we might add: the “hypogram” of the poem, the “propositional content” of the fiction.)


Consider Genesis 2:2, the completion of creation and the advent of the Sabbath:

ויכל אלהים ביום השביעי מלאכתו אשר עשה וישבת ביום השביעי מכל־מלאכתו אשר עשה׃
And on the seventh day God completed his work which he had done, and He rested on the seventh day from His work which He had done.

The text has a particularly interesting paper trail, not only because its rabbinic commentary offers a metaphor for writing (which I’ll discuss later on), but also because the text’s history includes a rabbinically authorized re-writing. The paradox, discussed at length in the first volume of the commentaries collected in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah, X.9), stems from an apparent contradiction between Genesis 2:2 and the passage that immediately precedes it. Chapter 1 of Genesis describes the first six days of creation. Chapter 2 begins by stating that the creation had been completed:

ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל־צבאם׃
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.

The question for the Midrash commentators is why, if the creation was completed on the sixth day, Genesis 2:2 says that God completed his work on the seventh day. The question is twofold: First, when in fact did God complete the creation? Second, why does the text say what it says? Why does it suggest that the creation was completed on the sixth day but then state that God finished his work on the seventh day—the day of rest, the day on which we are commanded to abstain from all work in order to remember God’s rest at the twilight of time and anticipate the final rest that will come with its closing dawn?

One answer to the first question, indeed the only “definitive” answer (which, for that very reason, receives only passing mention in the Midrash), is quite simply: the creation was completed on the sixth day. This was the answer of the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah from the 3rd century BCE, allegedly commissioned by King Ptolemy II. In this version, the passage was altered to read:

καὶ συνετέλεσεν ὁ θεὸς ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἕκτῃ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ, ἃ ἐποίησεν, καὶ κατέπαυσεν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἑβδόμῃ ἀπὸ πάντων τῶν ἔργων αὐτοῦ, ὧν ἐποίησεν.
And on the sixth day God completed his works which he made, and he ceased on the seventh day from all his works which he made.

I will leave open the question of how the tradition could have permitted itself this alteration; how it could have permitted the erasure, rather than the solution, of a textual paradox over which it would later spill so much ink; how, moreover, it was able to incorporate the alteration into the myth, the parable, of the miracle of the Septuagint’s composition (at Ptolemy’s bequest, 72 rabbis—6 from each of the 12 tribes—worked in complete isolation from one another for 72 days and produced 72 identical Greek texts). Suffice it to note that in the brief section of the Babylonian Talmud that discusses the laws that dictate the languages and alphabets in which one is permitted to write the different holy texts (Megillah, 9a-b), the parable of the Septuagint is cited as proof of the permissibility of translating parts of the Torah into Greek, and is supported by a catalogue of the fifteen identical alterations that God Himself prompted each of the rabbis to make.

Interestingly, in one of the few places in the discussion where the value of an alteration is explained, the text states that by replacing the Greek word for “hare” with the phrase “the short-legged creature,” the translators tactfully avoided inadvertently slandering the name of King Ptolemy’s wife. Homonymy, which in Hebrew was a textual virtue that prompted rabbis to the infinite task of exegesis, became a force to be controlled. It would seem that whatever the miracle of the Septuagint, the perfection available to a translation of the Law—from the sacred alphabet to a profane tongue, from the coiling scroll to a paginated codex—seems limited by several factors. For example, by the necessary effect that such an expropriation would have on differences between the Written Law and the Oral Law.


In the Midrash the answer to the question of when God completed the creation is rather more complex than the answer given by the translators of the Septuagint. It turns, at least at first, on God’s relation to time.

The Rabbi asked R. Ishmael b. R. Jose, “Have you heard from your father the actual meaning of ‘And on the seventh day God finished, etc...’?” Said he to him, “It is like a man striking the hammer on the anvil, raising it by day and bringing it down after nightfall.”

This first answer, the parable of the blacksmith, makes sense of the text’s equivocation by splitting the instant of completion into two moments. Thus, God began the completion (raising the hammer) at the end of the sixth day, and completed the completion (striking the anvil) at the beginning of the seventh. Beginning with an end and ending with a beginning, the creation’s completion stitched the seventh day to the sixth.

At which point another scholar chimes in, assuring us that this final touch, though double, was nevertheless instantaneous:

R. Simeon b. Yohai said, “Mortal man, who does not know his minutes, his times, or his hours, must add from the profane to the sacred; but the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows His moments, His times, and His hours, can enter it by a hair’s breadth.”

We mortal men (whose clocks are ticking) are helplessly imprecise when it comes to matters of time. We lose track. We show up too late or too soon, at least now and then. We never seem to know the time, and even when we do, we seem to forget what it’s time for. As a consequence, our actions inevitably spill over prescribed limits, ending up, as it were, in overtime. A mortal blacksmith, aiming to finish his product just before sundown on Friday—the threshold between the profane time of the workweek and the sacred time of the Sabbath—may always accidentally strike the anvil a moment too late. But God is always right on time. He is incapable of overstepping or mistiming. He can stay just within the slightest limit, taking up just the right amount of space and being there just in time. With divine timing, the transcendental blacksmith raised and lowered His hammer within the narrow interval that lay between the sixth day and the seventh, in the split-second of sundown. God’s final touch thus split the very divide that it stitched, bridged the interval it cleft, at once dividing and uniting the sixth day and the seventh, the time of the profane and the time of the sacred.


Despite the divinely ordained translation of the Hebrew word for “seventh” (השביעי) with the Greek word for “sixth” (τῇ ἕκτῃ), the Mishnah commentators make it clear that the contradiction stands—not as an error, but as a meaningful paradox. Nevertheless, the commentators’ defense of the phrasing of Genesis 2:2 entails another problem. For if we grant that God completed his work “on” the seventh day in any capacity at all, then we need to reconcile it with the fourth commandment, the remembrance of the Sabbath and the prohibition of labor. The text from Exodus (20:8-11) reads:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

For mortal men, the Sabbath is essentially a day of rest, of the mandatory cessation of labor. We and all those under our dominion are commanded to “remember the sabbath day,” that is, to remember to cease from our labors on the seventh day of each week for a full day (the interested reader should check out Avi Garelick’s piece on what the rabbis in the Talmud have to say about the protocol for the non-sentient beings under our domain).

Interestingly, the version of the commandment in Deuteronomy (5:15) gives memory an additional function:

And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Here it is not enough for us to remember to cease from labor; we must also remember to remember the exodus. On second thought, however, these two different acts of remembering have one and the same object. After all, the exodus was our original cessation from labor. By delivering us from bondage, God gave us the possibility of ceasing from labor voluntarily and also of remembering previous acts of cessation—our own (since remembrance is the debt of liberation), and God’s (since with our delivery from bondage we also received the Written Law itself).

The remembrance of the Sabbath is therefore at least double: on the one hand, we must remember to keep the weekly Sabbath; on the other hand we keep the Sabbath precisely by remembering the original Sabbath. In the latter sense, the act of cessation is a reminder, a physical mnemonic. We remember through the repetition of cessation. “Remember the sabbath day” means: “Remember (to obey) the law of the Sabbath; Remember your cessation from labor when I delivered you from bondage, and remember the (Written) Law that I gave you at Sinai; Remember the original Sabbath that crowned the creation of the world, and remember the final Sabbath that the Messiah will herald.”


“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day.” But God didn’t simply rest on the seventh day, at least not at first. First he finished His work, and then He rested. How can we square these apparently contradictory propositions? “Genibah and the Rabbis discussed this”:

Genibah said: This may be compared to a king who made a bridal chamber, which he plastered, painted, and adorned; now what did the bridal chamber lack? A bride to enter it. Similarly, what did the world still lack? The Sabbath.

Genibah’s parable offers a way of thinking about completion that allows for the possibility that the completion of the world and the cessation from labor are actually the same thing. The parable suggests that there are two different modes of completion for a given creation: first, the completion of the work itself; second, the completion of that for the sake of which the work was undertaken. A bridal chamber isn’t just a physical space with a set of properties—it’s a room; a space for something. It isn’t truly complete until it houses its intended occupant. Genibah argues that the same holds true of the creation of the world. In the first six days, God created the world, but on the seventh day He completed the work with that for the sake of which He undertook it in the first place: he rested. The Sabbath constitutes the creation’s crowning supplement, its centerpiece. (A 16th-century Kabbalistic hymn, now a standard part of Friday evening services, welcomes the Sabbath bride: “Let’s go, my beloved, to meet the bride / and let us welcome the presence of Shabbat!”)


So the completion of the world and the advent of the Sabbath were one and the same: the act of cessation was the advent of rest, creation’s final cause. But how does this second paradox fare beside the first? How, in other words, does the Sabbath’s paradoxical timing relate to its status as the final cause of the creation? When comes the Sabbath bride? The rabbis in the Midrash don’t address this question explicitly, but their next parable offers some hints, or at least opens some new doors—one of which leads back, through the living archive of tradition, to the arch-paradox with which I began: the peculiar double relation between the Oral Law and the Written Law.

The Rabbis said: Imagine a king who made a ring: what did it lack? A signet. Similarly, what did the world lack? The Sabbath.

The signet clearly represents the king’s signature, the unique mark that identifies the ring as his property. On this reading, the Sabbath is God’s metaphorical signature upon the world. The Sabbath as a name of God. Moreover, as a sign between God and His people: “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy” (Exodus 31:13). The Sabbath as a sign of the covenant; as the world’s circumcision.

But this reading overlooks the signet ring’s final cause. Indeed, just as the bride completes the bridal chamber, the signet completes the signet ring. But the significance of the signet in this particular case isn’t merely proprietary. Or rather, it is essentially proprietary. The ring’s signet isn’t merely a generic mark of property assigned to an object that just happens to be a ring; it is rather the very precondition of appropriation in general. For the signet is the added element that makes the ring a signet ring. And what, in the end, is a signet ring? The instrument with which the king impresses his sign upon, authenticating, royal documents and decrees. One engraving issues infinite impressions. One properly designed ornament endows the king with unlimited powers of appropriation and designation. The significance of the signet, therefore, vastly exceeds its function as a particular signature. Its addition to the ring amounts to the creation of the original signature that permits signing in general.

In fact, the parable of king’s signet ring grants a somewhat more intimate look into the parable of the bridal chamber. I’ll stamp it here a second time:

This may be compared to a king who made a bridal chamber, which he plastered, painted, and adorned; now what did the bridal chamber lack? A bride to enter it.

The king sets out to make a bridal chamber. First he sets up the space, establishing its exteriority, its surfaces: “he plastered, painted, and adorned.” But the space is not complete until its interior is filled—until the surface is penetrated by the bride’s entrance. It’s a doubly erotic scene: the chamber is consecrated just as the marriage is consummated. And this double act is a temporal hinge: the completion of architectural production is the commencement of biological reproduction.

This pattern is just the same as in the case of the ring’s signet. There, the signet completes the king’s ring, enabling the proper reproduction of signatures. Here, the bride completes the king’s architecture, enabling the proper reproduction of new kings. In each case, what completes production is precisely the advent of the (possibility) of reproduction. But this doubling is not coincidental. Biological and scriptural reproduction are inexorably linked within the system that maintains nothing less than king’s enduring self-identity. Patriarchy is the name of the system that links patriliny to patronym, the king’s heir to the king’s sign; the system in which the legitimate son, the rightful heir of his father’s name, inherits his father’s title, power, property, and above all, his powers of appropriation.

The movement produced by the system is linear (from original to copy: patriarch to heir; signet ring to signature), but it proceeds by looping through itself. For in each case what is reproduced (heir, signature) is also the precondition of the original production (bridal chamber, signet). For the king to have inherited the right to build a bridal chamber in the first place, what was needed? The (original) king’s bride. For the king to have been able to commission the production of a ring in the first place, what was needed? The (original) king’s signature. Before the king can reproduce a legitimate heir or an authentic signature, the bride and the signet must always have already authenticated the king.


What would it mean, then, for the world to have lacked the Sabbath in the same way that the king’s bridal chamber lacked its bride and the king’s ring lacked its signet? To consider this question is to realize that the Sabbath is not only the creation’s final cause, but also its precondition. It would mean that God created the world both for the sake of the Sabbath, and also thanks to the Sabbath; that His labor was both for cessation and from cessation; that, finally, the “original” Sabbath, the act of cessation written in Genesis 2:2, was already a repetition of itself. Just as, chronologically, the act of completion splits its unity across the same two days it fits itself between, stitching the sacred time of the Sabbath to the profane time of the workweek; so too, teleologically, the act of cessation always stamps another copy and remembers another memory of the original-copy and foundational-memory whose the prototype and archive is the text of the Law of the Sabbath. It is like a cylinder-seal rolling across the scroll of time. What does the writing finally say? Derrida wrote that Levinas wrote that Reb Eliezer said: If all the seas were of ink, and all ponds planted with reeds, if the sky and the earth were parchments and if all human beings practised the art of writing—they would not exhaust the Torah I have learned, just as the Torah itself would not be diminished any more than is the sea by the water removed by a paint brush dipped in it.

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