Many people have a basic misconception regarding Shabbat. We tend to think of it as simply a day of R&R – a day to relax our minds and bodies from the stresses and tediousness of the workweek.
As worthy an idea as that is, the laws of Shabbat paint a very different picture. We may think of relaxation as driving to the beach, watching a good movie, or going shopping. Yet none of these activities are permitted on Shabbat. We might likewise expect actions requiring exertion to be forbidden. Yet, technically speaking, one may drag heavy pieces of furniture around his house the entire Shabbat day – while he may not strike a match or flip a light switch. Likewise, we travel on foot on Shabbat – though this requires much more effort than driving a car. If so, what is the purpose of the Shabbat laws – and how do they remind us that God "worked" for six days and "rested" on the seventh?
The idea is as follows. During the six days of Creation, the world was incomplete. God was engaged in a process of molding and acting upon the universe, transforming it from more primitive to more advanced states – light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, plants, aquatic life, terrestrials, and at last man.
When the first Shabbat arrived, God's work was finished. The world was perfect and complete. God no longer had to change the world and improve upon it. Everything the world required and would ever require existed and had been put into place. God had only to leave the universe as is, allowing all its components to function in harmony.
This was the idea of the "rest" God enjoyed on Shabbat (Genesis 2:2). It was not, of course, that an all-powerful God was "tired" and had to take a break from His work. It was that God had brought the world to a state of perfection. He no longer had to interfere with it: altering and modifying the world to improve it. God‘s handiwork was complete. His creation could "rest": it could exist just the way it was – with all its components coexisting in peace and harmony.
On Shabbat we recognize that God's world is perfect.
This phenomenon is reenacted each week on Shabbat. During the week we see the world as incomplete. We must labor: clear the land, till the soil, build shelters, plant, harvest, cook, manufacture – all in order to make the world a suitable habitat for man. For six days, we – as did God – must force our mark upon the world – altering it from its natural state in order to make it a vessel worthy of man.
On Shabbat we recognize that God's world is perfect.
When Shabbat arrives, we are commanded to cease interfering with the world. We no longer assert our mastery over it, changing it from its natural state. We may not build, burn, work the earth – or even pick a flower. Any act that changes the earth from its natural state in the smallest way contradicts the spirit of Shabbat. We cease doing acts of creation – and by so doing, attest that the world as created by God is perfect.
When God completed Creation and the world enjoyed its first Shabbat, it should have remained eternally in a complete and perfect state. An everlasting Shabbat should have ensued. However, with the primordial Sin of Adam, the world fell. Man would no longer live in a perfect world – enjoying the ready-to-eat fruits of the Garden of Eden through no labor of his own. He would have to work – to conquer the world and eat bread only through the sweat of his brow.
Ultimately, the world will again be perfected in the End of Days. Man will again live in harmony with the world and nature, devoting his being and energies to God alone. That period is known as "yom shekulo Shabbat" – a time of eternal Shabbat, a time we eagerly await today.
Yet once a week, God granted Israel a small taste of that ultimate, blissful state – the gift of Shabbat. The Talmud writes that Shabbat is 1/60th of the World to Come (Brachot 57b). On Shabbat, the world reverts in a small way to its perfected state – to a fully functional and harmonious earth, requiring no human effort or intervention. Man does not have to labor to sustain himself. The Talmud writes that expenses a person spends for Shabbat are reimbursed by God Himself (Beitzah 16a). The Shabbat universe is capable of sustaining man through no effort or expense of his own. And to the extent that Shabbat is meaningful to us, that plane of existence can become our reality today.
Yet there is something even more curious about Shabbat. On the one hand, it is the holiest and most spiritual day of the week. On the other, it is a physically pleasurable day. We dress well, eat well, and celebrate the day as lavishly as we are able. Why are physical enjoyments appropriate for such a spiritual day? And further, wouldn’t indulging in the physical side of the world detract from our appreciation of holiness? How is it that on Shabbat the two coexist?
To explain, we must introduce one more concept. The more perfect an object is in this world, the more it is a reflection of God. "Perfect" creations reflect and attest to a perfect Creator. Further, the more a physical object (or time period) reflects sanctity, the more it becomes aligned with sanctity and acts as a conduit for it. Thus, physically-complete creations, in attesting to God's glorious handiwork, become spiritually charged as well. They allow spiritual forces to flow unobstructed from the heavens, infusing and energizing the physical world with spiritual vitality.
Thus, Shabbat, a time in which the physical universe is perfect, is a time of enormous spiritual potential as well. It is a time when the physical and spiritual worlds become aligned. On Shabbat the world is not only in harmony with itself; it is in harmony with God as well.
As a result, Shabbat is a time of both spiritual and physical enjoyment – a time in which the two types of experiences coalesce in complete harmony and together enhance our appreciation of God. During the week the spiritual and physical sides of creation may well conflict: The more physically indulgent a person is, the less spiritual he is going to be. But on Shabbat they complement. Physical and spiritual all merge into one magnificent whole, serving as a reflection of the one all-encompassing God who created them.
(Based in part on "Sabbath – Day of Eternity" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, published by Artscroll.com as a part of the Aryeh Kaplan Anthology.)