I find it fascinating how often over the years people have actually said to me that they genuinely believe that in one form or another their pets know when it is Shabbat.
In fact our sages in the Psikta Rabbah tell us that on one occasion Rabbi Yochanan sold his ox to a non-Jewish farmer. After a while the farmer came to Rabbi Yochanan to complain to him:
That ox which you sold me, he said, refuses to work on Saturdays!
Such a phenomenon can be understood in the context of Parshat Mishpatim.
In our parsha the Torah yet again gives us the mitzvah to keep Shabbat and this is how the mitzvah is worded (Shemot 23:12):
“Uvayom hashvii tishbot,” – “And on the seventh day you must have a sabbath,” – “Leman yanoach shurcha vechamorecha,” – “in order that your ox and your donkey should rest.”
Now surely the Torah should have said, every seventh day you, your ox and your donkey should rest? Why is it presented in this fashion?
The Rebbe of Gur explains beautifully. He said, ‘uvayom hashvii tishbot’ – if every seventh day you have a true Shabbat, that is to say you don’t just keep the letter of the law but in addition you keep to the spirit of the day, if your day is filled with ruach, spiritually uplifting experiences, the result is that you will have a great impact on your surroundings so much so that even your ox and your donkey will know that this is a special day.
I believe that this teaching is of enormous significance today at a time when there is so much out there competing with our requirement to keep Shabbat. And what applies to Shabbat applies to all of the mitzvot. The prophet Isaiah (58:13) declared,
“Vekarata l’Shabbat oneg” – “You will discover that the Sabbath is a day of true delight.”
If on this day you stop doing what we call ‘vochadig’ activities, weekday activities, and instead you add on to your ‘Shabbosdig’ activities the result is that you will discover what a delight Shabbat is.
In fact it’s an extraordinary gift from Hashem that every seven days we can have an opportunity for a life shaping and life enhancing experience. But that only happens when we keep the spirit of the day. It’s so important that we should be enthusiastic and passionate about Shabbat and if we are, by keeping to the spirit of the day, we’ll have the capacity to pass on that enthusiasm through to the generations to come.
It’s only when we keep to the spirit of Shabbat that it becomes what we describe in our zemirot, our songs of the day, a true ‘me’ein olam haba’ – Shabbat can indeed be the closest thing to Heaven while still being here on earth.