ששת ימים תעשה מעשיך וביום השביעי תשבת למען ינוח שורך וחמרך וינפש בן אמתך והגר.
“Six days you shall do your work and on the seventh day you shall rest so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your maidservant shall rest, and the stranger.” (Shemos 23:12)
This verse seems puzzling on several accounts. The parsha of Mishpatim is full of laws that pertain to interpersonal dealings, such as the laws of the Hebrew slave, the laws of compensating others for damage, etc. Shabbos is a mitzvah that connects a person to Hashem, so it seems out of place in this parsha. Furthermore, in the previous parsha, Yisro, the Torah already commanded us to keep Shabbos, so why is it repeated here?
The wording of the verse also raises several questions. “Six days you shall do your work,” sounds like a commandment to work for six days. Does this mean that a person is obligated to work during the week? What if he wants to learn Torah instead, would he still be obligated to do his work for six days? The verse continues by listing all who must rest on Shabbos, but the wording makes it appear as if the very purpose of Shabbos is “so that your ox and your donkey shall rest….” Is this indeed the reason for Shabbos? Is the resting required of the oxen, donkeys and servants more important than the Jew’s obligation to rest on Shabbos?
This can be explained with the teaching of the Avodas Yisroel, who writes that a person must prepare himself during the six days of the week in order to be able to feel the holiness of Shabbos. Each day, a person should work on refining one of the six attributes of spiritual growth. On Sunday he should work on chesed – kindness, on Monday he shall work on gevurah – strength, and so on. If he will do so, he will arrive at Shabbos fully prepared to accept the spiritual bounty that comes down to us on this special, holy day.
What happens if a person neglected to prepare himself adequately for Shabbos? The Avodas Yisroel advises this person to visit a tzaddik who did prepare himself for Shabbos, and has even made enough preparation to be able to spread the light of Shabbos to others. He compares this to a poor laborer who ekes out a living, barely providing for his family’s needs week by week. He cannot afford any extras and can only buy things that fit into his meager budget. On the other hand, a wealthy businessman has plenty of money for extras. He can afford to have guests and entertain them lavishly. He can even afford to subsidize the poor laborer’s needs.
The same is true regarding spiritual matters. “Whoever toils before Shabbos has what to eat on Shabbos.” A person merits to feel the spiritual joy of Shabbos according to the amount of effort he put in to prepare himself before Shabbos. If his own “income” is not sufficient to enable him to experience the true taste of Shabbos, he should go to a tzaddik who has enough spiritual wealth to enable others to feel the kedusha of this holy day.
When interpreted homiletically, this verse is not a commandment to keep Shabbos, but rather commands us to prepare ourselves adequately for Shabbos. “Six days you shall do your work,” during the six days of the week we shall fortify ourselves spiritually, which is often hard work. To what extent should we work on preparing ourselves for Shabbos? “So that shorcha – your ox, and chamorcha – your donkey shall rest.” The word “shor” (ox) can be interpreted to mean looking (see Bamidbar 23:9). A person should strive to be on a high level on Shabbos so that others who did not prepare themselves adequately should be able to get a taste of Shabbos just by looking at him. Likewise, those who serve Hashem according to a lower level of devotion, and are likened to donkeys who do not understand the purpose of their work, nor do they have any personal interest and joy in doing their duties, they too shall be inspired by looking at his avodah on Shabbos. “And the son of your maidservant” – the word amascha – maidservant, has the same root as the word emes – truth. When a person prepares himself adequately for Shabbos, he is able to inspire those who are still searching for truth and have not yet found personal fulfillment in Shabbos.
We now understand why this commandment appears among all other interpersonal laws, because it pertains to a person’s relationship with his fellow man. It is our obligation to strive towards high spiritual achievement on Shabbos, so that we should be able to spread the light and spirit of Shabbos further, to others who may not have been able to prepare themselves for this holy day.