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Shabbat is The First Labor Law

Posted by Rabbi Ron Symons on September 1, 2017

I was struck by this Samuel Rosenberg Image entitled ‘Rest’ in the spring when Melissa Hiller, Director of our American Jewish Museum, brought me to the Heinz History Center to see the exhibit “The Gift of Art“.

“For 100 years, the Friends of Art has purchased art to be given to the Pittsburgh Public Schools and enjoyed by tens of thousands of school children. Seeking to inspire an appreciation for art and a “love of the beautiful” among school students, the Friends of Art has continued their mission over the past century, building a collection that captures the evolution of art and culture in the region.”

The adults in the image above just seem drained after a  long day of work, after a long week of work, after a long month of work, after a long year of work….  They need rest.

It got me thinking about Shabbat.  Achad Ha’Am, a 20th Century Jewish thinker and Zionist, famously said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”  Of course, he was hearkening back to the biblical injunction to, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.” (Exodus 20)

You see, Shabbat is a gift not only to the Jewish People, but to humanity at large.  In  Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, Jeremiah Unterman argues that it is the Divinely established beginning of human rights Sabbath rest as the first law of equality in society.  He points out that no scholar has succeeded in providing for a weekly or regular day of rest in any other ancient society. The Jewish Bible, he argues, invented the weekend, which has been adopted, in one form or another, by the vast majority of the world.  This concept of Shabbat had a democratizing influence on society.  All were equal for one full day of the week (and on certain holidays), and no one could require anybody else to work on that day.  Even the king could not ask his lowliest servant to work on that day!  Here the Bible establishes a weekly rest period as he first labor law: human rights for all members of society, along with the limitations of government.

May this Labor Day inspire us to carve out the the time each one of us needs to rest and ensure that all of our neighbors have the same ability to rest.  After all, Rabbi Akiva teaches us that the greatest principle of the Torah is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

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