Ethics in the Parshah – Beshalach: Shabbat and Commercial Activity

“Six days you shall gather it [Manna] and on the seventh, the Sabbath, it will not be there. On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather and did not find [Manna].(Shemot 16:27-28)


Why is economic activity forbidden on Shabbat? What is the source for the sedentary character of the holy day, and in what way does commerce detract from this character? From the above verses it would appear that the first dispute over Shabbat's character dates from the very first time the command to keep Shabbat was given. Indeed, the parameters of that dispute still serve as the basis for modern debate over the form of Shabbat in Israel. Just as some did not trust the promise that G-d would provide food for them before Shabbat, there are many companies who feel that they cannot forgo the economic benefits of weekend shopping and close their doors on Shabbat.

Moreover, this issue has come to a head in modern-day life, when people put in 60 or 70 hours in their six-day workweeks and look forward to the weekend as a time of relaxation and fun at their favorite shopping mall, which can boast fast food courts, children's entertainment, the latest books on sale and a five-tiered movie theater. Shabbat proscribes all of these forms of recreation and demands a total cessation of commercial activity. For customers, this severely curtails their ability to enjoy weekend shopping, while storeowners view Shabbat as a missed opportunity to gain some revenue.

                In the book of Nehemiah a similar debate took place over Shabbat commerce:

“In those days I saw in Judea people pressing grapes on Shabbat, and bringing sheaves of produce on their donkeys, as well as wine, figs and grapes… which they brought to Yerushalayim on Shabbat, and I warned them on market day not to continue this practice”

“The Phoenicians who lived there would bring fish and other merchandise and sell to the people of Yehuda and Yerushalayim on Shabbat

From these verses it seems that originally the Jews themselves were collecting their produce and bringing it to the marketplace on Shabbat. While Nehemiah prevailed on the Jews not to bring produce, he could not prevent foreign merchants from offering their wares. He therefore pleaded with the lay leadership to forbid entry to these merchants on Shabbat:

“I argued with the leaders of Judah and said:” What is this evil thing you are doing –desecrating the Shabbat? Isn't this what your fathers did which caused evil to befall us and this town, and now you are adding to [G-d's] fury against Israel by desecrating the Shabbat?

When this speech did not move the leaders to action, Nehemiah personally checked that the gates of Jerusalem were closed before Shabbat and appointed guards to prevent any items from entering the town. At this point the merchants camped outside the walls, hoping to do some business from there with locals, and Nehemiah once again threatened them with severe consequences:

“And I warned them and said : Why are you sleeping outside the walls? If you do this again, I will attack you – and from that day on they did not come on Shabbat”

                In modern day Israel as well, companies bypass Sabbath commerce laws by building commercial centers outside the town perimeters and touting them as entertainment (which is legally permitted). Many businesses cannot resist the temptation of double profits which they can obtain from weekend sales, ignoring the prophets' declaration that this was a fundamental cause of the first exile from the land of Israel. But even secular Jews should be outraged at these breaches of law as they cause numerous problems:

1)                  Many businesses are not allowed to operate on Shabbat, (e.g. local supermarkets) and allowing some economic activity outside city limits discriminates against these businesses and encourages unfair competition.

2)                  There is a real disadvantage for workers who are forced to work on weekends and cannot get the break they need and legally deserve (based on the Law of Hours of Rest from Work)

3)                  The law of equal opportunities of livelihood is at risk, since qualified religious people will not be able to work at establishments open on Shabbat.

Those individuals who continue to flaunt the law and do business on Shabbat may think that they will profit from their actions ,but in the long run the Torah testifies that they will not gain riches or happiness. A Jew who refrains from economic activity on Shabbat proclaims that his livelihood stems from G-d , just as in the desert He provided a double portion for those who kept Shabbat:

“See that G-d has given you the Sabbath, and therefore He gave you double on Friday”

        Those who open their businesses on Shabbat demonstrate that they do not believe in Divine benevolence, and prefer to rely on themselves for their sustenance. They should realize that Shabbat is not just a day for spiritual nourishment; it is also a guarantee for physical prosperity. In the long run it can also help us defeat our enemies and achieve the peace we all crave, as Chazal tell us:      

“Had Israel kept the first Shabbat properly, no nation or power could have dominated them, as it says “on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather and did not find [manna]”, and immediately afterwards “Amalek came [to attack the Jews].” (Shabbat 118a) 


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