Torah For The Times    

Parshat Vayakel


Shabbos  And The Mishkan: Patent Protected

First Commands after Moses’ Return

This week’s parsha begins with the words: “Moses gathered the whole community of the children of Israel and he said to them, ‘These are the things that G‑d commanded to be done.’” The Torah then enumerates two things that G‑d commanded: Shabbos and the building of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary.

As Rashi informs us, this occurred the day after Yom Kippur, the day Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the second tablets. Moses certainly had more than two things to report. Yet, commentators raise the question, it seems that these two themes—Shabbos and the Mishkan—were the only two things that were on G‑d’s and Moses’ minds at that time.

Moreover, the words Moses used, “These are the things that G‑d commanded” implied that these were the only things G‑d commanded. How could that be, considering the fact that all 613 commandments were given at Mount Sinai, not only Shabbos and the construction of the Mishkan?

The following is an expanded version of an explanation offered in the 19th century work, Ksav Sofer:

Of all the 613 Mitzvos of that were given at Mount Sinai, there are only two which could not possibly be observed without G‑d’s express commandment to the people to perform them. These two are Shabbos observance and the construction of the Mishkan.

To elaborate:

Pre-Sinai Judaism

Prior to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, anyone could have volunteered to observe any of the commandments. The Talmud relates that Abraham observed all of the Mitzvos even though they were not yet obligatory. Although the Torah had not been given “officially” its precepts were known to earlier generations. Noah, for example, was told to bring two of the non-kosher species into the Ark and seven pairs of the kosher species. He had to know the laws that distinguish kosher from non-kosher species.

There was one notable exception to the general license to observe any Mitzvah even if it was not yet mandated: Shabbos observance. Shabbos is a gift given exclusively to the Jewish people at Sinai. It is not just a day of rest; it is when we connect to our inner spiritual rhythm that empowers us to fulfill our specific mission as Jews.

To help understand why Shabbos is exclusively a Jewish observance, we must first clarify the respective roles of Jews and non-Jews assigned to them by the Torah.

The Master Plan

G‑d created the universe with a purpose and a plan. The purpose is for the world which exists in a G‑dly “vacuum” (referred to by the Kabbalists as “makom panuy—“Empty Space”) created by G‑d (in a process which the Kabbalists called tzimtzum-contraction, or the “withdrawal” of the Infinite light of G‑d that pervaded that “space”) shouldreintroduce the Infinite G‑dly presence into that vacuum. In the famous words of the Midrash: “G‑d desired a dwelling place in the lowest of worlds.”

How does the world go about achieving this goal?

The answer is that it involves a two pronged approach. To make the world a G‑dly world it first has to be agoodly world; a world that is civilized, inhabited, just and respectful of its G‑dly Source.  To use a simple analogy: a wealthy person commissions the construction of a beautiful and ornate mansion. To build this dream house the magnate hires the best builders and decorators money can buy. Yet the house will not be occupied unless its foundations are sound and secure and unless the earth is leveled and the area is environmentally safe. One does not want to discover that one’s home is built on a landfill rife with harmful chemicals that will ultimately leach and spread their deadly fumes into the home, rendering it uninhabitable. 

This objective of making the world a civilized and morally clean world is a universal one. This mission is achieved by subscribing to and observing the seven Noahide commandments that were originally given to Noah after the flood that destroyed a world that failed to heed these principles, given even earlier to Adam. These commandments were later reiterated at Sinai and entrusted to the Jewish nation to transmit these tenets to all of humanity.

The Second Prong

At Sinai, G‑d introduced the second prong of His Master Plan to the world; this was the part for which only one nation—the Jewish nation—was chosen.  This component goes beyond “just” laying the ground work for the ultimate reintroduction of the Divine within the world. It demands of us to create the magnificent structure with all of the most exquisite furnishings. This we achieve by way of performing the Mitzvos, most of which involve using the physical objects of the world for a Divine purpose.

This mission was specifically given to the Jewish people. This includes those who were born Jewish and those who converted to Judaism according to G‑d’s instructions as delineated in the Torah. A non-Jew’s mission, for which he or she was given the resources to fulfill, is to create the backdrop for all of the efforts of the Jewish people. Their task is to help build a just and stable society. In Talmudic terms this is called “yishuvo shel olam,” settling and stabilizing the world.

Non-Jews who feel they have the passion to join the mission entrusted to the Jewish people have to engage in much soul-searching. Are they truly endowed with a Jewish soul, i.e., the resources to transform themselves and their environment into a G‑dly place or do they possess the wherewithal to lend support to the overall mission by creating a most stable foundation? If, after much introspection and study, they come to the conclusion that they are ready for the greater responsibility—which is also fraught with far more hardship, potential for failure, suffering and pain along with the rewards—they must then consult a competent rabbinic authority to go through the process of geirus-Halachic  conversion. This process does not really change their identities as much as it reveals that they always had that potential. The souls of righteous converts also stood at Mount Sinai and enthusiastically embraced the Torah that embodies this specific mission.

Thus, the non-Jew’s focus is to help build the world; create the infrastructure and make the necessary advances in all areas such as, but not limited to, science, medicine and agriculture. One does not have a vacation from his or her life’s mission. Even when a person must rest in order to physically and emotionally survive, he or she is not really shirking his or her mission, it is just a temporary pause to enable one to get back on track.


For the Jewish individual whose role is to introduce the Divine into an already existing civilized society, his or her unique role is to uncover the spirituality and the G‑dly energy within the world. The vacuum that was created at the time of Creation is a façade. In truth, G‑d never left the world that He created; He just created that reality to exist from our vantage point. Our role and mission therefore is not constructing a world per se, but deconstructing the façade.

Towards that end we were given the Shabbos, not simply as a day of rest from weekday activity, but more profoundly a day that takes us away from building a world; a function that we share with the rest of society. Shabbos reveals our true distinctive purpose.

Thus, our Sages tell us that Shabbos is a patently Jewish day. While everyone needs rest, only the Jewish soul needs to be given the opportunity to rise above mundane activity and even “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world. That is the function of humanity; not exclusively the Jewish people. In addition to our universal role we also have a crucial parochial goal of removing the veil from and uncovering the Divine in the physical world.

In other words, “rest” for humanity is an accessory to building; it is not the end. For the Jew, Shabbos rest isthe goal and it ultimately must inform, inspire and elevate the work he or she does the rest of the week.

Shabbos and Mishkan: Symbols of the Future

We can now understand why Shabbos and the construction of the Mishkan were singled out as the commandments which required specific Divine sanction to perform.

As stated, the Shabbos was not intended for “export.” Shabbos highlights our very unique mission as Jews. And when Jews realize their potential and fulfill their mission it gives strength and inspiration to all of humanity and enables them to succeed in their own mission.

When Moses returned on Yom Kippur with the Second Tablets he gathered the people together as a nation (Vayakhel) to inform them of their role which would distinguish them from the rest of humanity. Thus Moses states: “These are the things that G‑d commanded to be done,” to dramatize this uniquely Jewish role that was given at Mount Sinai. Without an express commandment from G‑d no one has the right to appropriate the Shabbos dynamic.

Likewise the Mishkan was not merely a place for worship. It was to represent the finished product of G‑d’s plan for the universe. It was to represent a world that has finally removed the veil, in its entirety, so that all of humanity will see G‑d’s presence in every aspect of life. To achieve this goal, G‑d specifically chose the Jewish people. Therefore, without an express commandment from G‑d to build the Mishkan it would have simply been another shrine or spiritual enclave. It would not have possessed the unique representation of the world of the future.

The Shabbos and the Mishkan are thus the two most dramatic representations of G‑d’s vision for the Messianic Age.