The Ultimate Sabbath

The sequence of Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat four out of five years is extremely rare.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Yom Kippur can fall on one of four days: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Shabbat (the Sabbath). In one year out of three, on average, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat (as it does this year). But this year concludes an extremely unusual sequence: in 5771 (2010), 5772 (2011), 5774 (2013), and this year 5775 (2014), Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat.

That is to say, Yom Kippur has fallen on Shabbat in four out of the last five consecutive years.

This calendrical singularity prompts the study of the connexion between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. When commanding us to observe Yom Kippur, the Torah defines Yom Kippur as Shabbat Shabbaton (Leviticus 16:31, 23:32), perhaps best rendered into English as “a Shabbat of complete sabbatical-rest”.

However, the Torah also describes the regular Shabbat as Shabbat Shabbaton (Exodus 31:15, 35:2, Leviticus 23:3). Clearly there is a close connexion between Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Indeed the actions which are forbidden on Shabbat are the same as those prohibited on Yom Kippur: “Any activity which carries the punishment of stoning if done deliberately on Shabbat carries the punishment of karet [spiritual excision] if done on Yom Kippur, and anything which would require a korban chattat [accidental-sin sacrifice] if done on Shabbat also requires a korban chattat if done on Yom Kippur. Similarly everything that is forbidden to do on Shabbat, even if it does not constitute labour, is also forbidden to do on Yom Kippur… The general rule is that the only difference between Shabbat and Yom Kippur is that deliberate labour on Shabbat is punished by stoning, and on Yom Kippur by karet” (Rambam, Laws of Yom Kippur 1:2).

The Shulchan Aruch says similarly: “Every labour which is punishable on Shabbat is also punishable on Yom Kippur; and everything which on Shabbat is forbidden but carries no punishment is the same on Yom Kippur. However the punishment for deliberate labour on Shabbat is stoning, and on Yom Kippur the punishment is karet” (Orach Chayim 611:2).

Incidentally, this explains the unusual sequence of subjects in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. The third Book, Z’manim (“Seasons”), begins with the laws of Shabbat, then continues with Yom Kippur, and then begins the annual sequence of Festivals – Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and so on. The Rambam juxtaposed the laws of Yom Kippur to Shabbat, instead of putting them in their annual sequence, precisely because the laws of Shabbat and Yom Kippur are broadly the same.

Let us analyse the Torah’s precise wording in commanding the Shabbat. “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: The appointed seasons of Hashem which you shall declare to be holy convocations – these are My appointed seasons. For six days labour is to be done, and the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a holy convocation; you shall do no labour, it is Hashem’s Shabbat throughout your habitations” (Leviticus 23:1-3).

The Vilna Gaon notes a peculiarity in the Torah’s wording. The Torah introduces this passage by saying that these are Hashem’s “appointed seasons” and “holy convocations” which we are bidden “to declare” – yet although the “appointed seasons” and “holy convocations” which we are bidden “to declare” are only the Festivals, the Torah begins not with the Festivals but with Shabbat. Only in the next paragraph (Leviticus 23:4-44) does the Torah continue with the Festivals – the “appointed seasons”.

The Vilna Gaon (whose 217th Yahrzeit falls in two weeks on 19th Tishrei, during Chol ha-Moed Sukkot) sees an allusion to the annual festival cycle. “For six days labour is to be done, and the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton” – in the weekly cycle, we are to work for six days in the week and cease from labor on Shabbat. In the annual cycle, there are six Festival days when certain “labor” may be done: on Rosh Hashanah (biblically one day), the first day of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, the first and last days of Pesach, and Shavuot we are permitted to cook, to transfer a flame from an already-burning fire to a new source (though not to light a new fire), and to carry in the public domain – all of which are prohibited on Shabbat.

“…And the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a holy convocation; you shall do no labour” – alluding to Yom Kippur, the seventh of the Festival days, the day which has all the strictures of Shabbat. Just as the mitzvah is to rest from all labour on Shabbat, so too is the mitzvah on Yom Kippur. Indeed the Rambam (Laws of Yom Kippur 1:4) and the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim, Laws of Yom Kippur 611:2) both define the mitzvah not as “fasting” but rather as “resting from eating and drinking”, in the same way that we rest from labour.

With all this a background, we can now examine the characteristic that Shabbat and Yom Kippur share: the motif of repentance. And to fathom this we go back to the dawn of history, to the first human event ever.

When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, He invited them to partake freely of all the trees in the Garden bar two: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God immediately punished them by expelling them from the Garden of Eden.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1:8) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 15) record that the sin occurred on their first day of life, that first ever Friday of existence. “In the ninth hour [Adam] was commanded not to eat of the Tree; in the tenth hour he sinned; in the eleventh hour he was judged; in the twelfth hour he was expelled [from the Garden of Eden] and went on his way”.

This means that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden in the final hour of their first day, shortly before the sun set to usher in the first Shabbat of history. The Talmud continues the narrative: “When evening came, Adam, the first man, saw the world growing dark in the west. He said: ‘Woe is me! Because I sinned, God is making the world dark around me!’ He did not know that this was the natural course of the world. In the morning, when he saw the world lighting up in the east, he greatly rejoiced, he arose, and built an altar” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1:8).

The Midrash offers an additional insight: “The Shabbat came and became an advocate for Adam, the first man. [Shabbat] said to [God]: ‘Sovereign of Eternity! During all six days of Creation no murderer was killed – and You will begin this with me?! Is this my sanctity?! Is this my blessing?! As it is said, ‘God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it’ (Genesis 2:3). Thus in the merit of the Shabbat day, Adam was saved from the judgment of Gehinnom. Adam, seeing the power of Shabbat, said: ‘Not for nothing did God bless and sanctify the Shabbat!’ He began to sing songs of praise to the Shabbat, as it is said, ‘A Psalm, a Song of Praise for the Shabbat Day…’ (Psalms 92:1). Rabbi Yishmael says: Adam originally sang this Psalm, but it was then forgotten throughout the generations until Moshe came and restored it” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 19).

That first Shabbat, then, was Adam’s first opportunity for repentance for the first sin in human history. His understanding however was yet incomplete, and would remain so until his son Cain sinned by murdering his brother Abel. God punished Cain by condemning him to a lifetime as a vagrant and wanderer, whereupon Cain left his family’s home. “As he was leaving, Adam, the first man, encountered him. He asked him: What was your judgment? He said to him: I repented and my punishment was lessened. When Adam, the first man, heard this, he struck himself in the face, saying to him: So great is the power of repentance – yet I didn’t know! Immediately Adam, the first man, said the Psalm, a Song of Praise for the Shabbat Day” (Vayikra Rabbah 10:5).

When Adam discovered the power of repentance, he immediately composed this Psalm of praise to Shabbat.

Another Midrash notes that though the Torah prescribes death penalty for desecrating Shabbat (Exodus 31:14), “this is only for one who desecrates it deliberately. But if done accidentally, let him bring a sacrifice and it will be atoned for. Said Rabbi Berechiah: When Adam saw the glory of Shabbat – that one who brings a sacrifice is atoned for – he began to sing songs of Shabbat-praises to God, which is the meaning of ‘A Psalm, a Song of Praise for the Shabbat Day’” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:1 [2]).

We reinforce the notion that Shabbat is the foundation of repentance and atonement.

And since Yom Kippur is the Festival that God decreed as our annual day for repentance, forgiveness, and atonement, it is eminently appropriate that the laws of Yom Kippur are predicated on the laws of Shabbat, that both Yom Kippur and Shabbat be called “Shabbat Shabbaton”.

Over and over again, our Sages tell us that the ninety-second Psalm, the Psalm of Praise to the Shabbat day, actually looks forward to “the day which is the complete Shabbat”, the time of redemption, the time of mashiach (see the Mishnah, Tamid 7:4; Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 31a and Sanhedrin 97a; Midrash, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:3).

We began by noting that this year Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, and that in the five-year period which concludes this year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat four times. As we approach Yom Kippur 5775 (2014), we stand no longer on the brink of an almighty maelstrom – its chaos and devastation already swirl around us in every direction. Everyone agrees that two words which describe the global situation today are “unstable” and “unpredictable”.

(If you want one thing to laugh about in all this mess, then just find any editorial comment or analysis on Syria or Egypt or Iraq from any time more than ten days ago; alternatively, keep a copy of today’s editorial comment or analysis on Syria or Egypt or Iraq and re-read it in ten days’ time, and see how laughably absurd the “experts” and their predictions are.)

The terrifying thing about instability and unpredictability is that the outcome can be absolutely horrific – far worse than anyone can predict. But the wonderful thing about instability and unpredictability is that the outcome can also be beautiful. We stand at a truly historic juncture – a divergence of an infinite number of possibilities. Israel can be plunged headlong into any result, from disaster and destruction (Rachmana litzlana…) to ultimate redemption, or anything in between.

Shabbat and Yom Kippur together. Both cry out for our repentance, both offer us the opportunity for atonement if we but reach out and take the opportunity.

We noted that the sequence of Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat four out of five years is extremely rare. The last time this calendrical sequence occurred was a century ago, in the five-year period 5673-5677 (1912-1916). The first two of these years passed relatively uneventfully. But by Yom Kippur 5675 (30th September 1914), the entire world was already aflame, engulfed by the most devastating war in history.

We face the same rare calendrical sequence today. Frightening? – Maybe. Unsettling? – Certainly. Mere coincidence? – Hardly!
Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton – the ultimate Shabbat. In the midst of the intensity of this era in which we live, in this period when of four out five years see Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat, we are closer than ever, and in more desperate and immediate need than ever, of yom she-kulo Shabbat – “the day which is the complete Shabbat”.