Last year the city of Suffern, New York was forced to grapple with the Shabbat laws when it tried to uphold zoning restrictions over the principle of Freedom of Religion. The city had denied a variance to a group of Jews who had set up a "Shabbos House" near a local hospital. Staying at the house would mean that patients' families could walk to the hospital on Shabbat, when driving is prohibited.
But why couldn’t those Jews drive to the hospital? Why is driving "work?" Or turning on a light switch? Or signing a document? If Shabbat is about rest, wouldn’t driving be better than walking in the summer heat and winter cold?
Author Judith Shulevitz points out that on Shabbat “you can throw a BarcaLounger across a room if you’ve got the muscles to do it,” but you can’t pluck a blade of grass. What is the deal with resting on Shabbat? Why can’t rest mean a relaxing game of golf, a good TV show, a book, or painting a picture?
Our sages expended no less than two entire books of the Talmud (Shabbat and Eruvin) and nearly 200 chapters in the Code of Jewish Law, getting into the nitty-gritty of Shabbat and defining work – melachah - and rest. If you peruse the list of various forbidden activities you’ll see that its clearly not about physical labor, but rather, ritual work: we rest because G-d rested. But what does that mean? G-d isn’t a human; He doesn’t tire or need a break. In fact, the Bible itself states as much in the book of Isaiah (40:28): "Do you not know? Have you not heard? The L-rd, the everlasting G-d, Creator of the wide world, grows neither weary nor faint."
So what was G-d’s “rest?”
It was His cessation of creating, when He stayed His hand and stopped tinkering with His world. When He allowed nature to just be.
So what is our rest?
When we stay our hands and stop tinkering with the world. When, instead of demonstrating our mastery over the world by virtue of our ability to make more of nature than exists, we simply co-exist with nature, understanding that we are equally creations of G-d.
So, while dragging the BarcaLounger across the livingroom might qualify as avodah, hard physical labor, it’s not melachah, creative work. There's no essential change in the composition of the world, theres no "before" and "after."
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman sees Shabbat rest as “photographic negative” of week-day melachah, or the use of white-space in a work of art. “…Throughout life a person engages in two kinds of construction: the six-days-a-week physical construction of things and objects and energy; and the seventh-day-of-the-week spiritual construction.” Just as the white space of the negative appears black in the final image, so too, the white space of Shabbat imprints as active building in the supernal image above.
The defining characteristics of melachah derive from those labors required for our ancestors to build the Tabernacle. This encompassed all manner of creative work, from weaving to scratching lines on a tanned hide, and utilized animal, plant, and mineral objects. Their efforts, exercised within the realm of space and the material world, resulted in the physical Tabernacle. On Shabbat we build a spiritual Tabernacle. But this construction occurs within the realm of time and involves the intangible. By staying our hands from those very activities that build within the material realm, we enter the Shabbat realm and through our non-doing, do.
So while we scurry about all week long, putting together animal and plant and mineral, on Shabbat we stand back at look at our work. We check to see, did we leave enough white space? Have we remembered that G-d is the Creator and Provider of all? Are we working on our spiritual connections with as much ardor as our material ones? Can we stop tinkering with the world long enough to realize that we and the objects we work with during the six week-days are equally creations of G-d?