One of my congregation’s favorite prayers is the V’shamru, sung just before the Amidah on Friday night and preceding the Kiddish on Saturday morning. We sing the rhythmic Rothblum melody which, more often than not, inspires clapping. Congregants’ faces and enthusiasm leave no doubt: This is one of their favorite parts of the service.
V’shamru, translated as “The children of Israel will keep or guard the Sabbath,” is found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Unlike the many prayers and hymns which are amalgams of different Torah verses and phrases, the V’shamru is lifted precisely and exclusively from Ex. 31:16 – 17. This is not the first time God mentions observing Shabbat, but each repetition adds a dimension to the commandment.
The first mention of keeping the Sabbath is found in Genesis 2:2-3, “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.” A few verses earlier, the Torah stated that God created humankind in God’s image. It follows that, in resting on the seventh day, humankind is to follow God’s example.
The next mention appears in Exodus. At the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Israelites are charged to remember the Sabbath and rest on that day. God confirms the holiness of the day and prohibits work. This adds a humanitarian and inclusionary dimension to the commandment, as it extends to strangers, servants and beasts of burden.
In Ki Tisa, the Hebrews are admonished to guard, or keep the Sabbath, for “on the seventh day, God rested and vayinafash.” This usually is translated, “God rested and was refreshed.” Robert Alter offers a different translation: “God rested and caught His breath.” Alter’s translation is well-supported. Vayinafash comes from the same Hebrew root as nefesh, which alternatively can be translated as soul, breath, a person or even passion. Still, his translation caught me by surprise. As readers of the Torah, we are familiar with the portrayal of God in human terms — as a father, mother or shepherd. We are given other anthropomorphic descriptions, like God’s hands, face or back. Early in Genesis, we have the image of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. God, as the unfathomable Holy One, does not have any of these physical characteristics, but we need these metaphors in order to better understand the unknowable.
Alter’s translation gave me pause, but also inspired me to try out one of the other translations of nefesh in the context of V’shamru. Why not, “God rested and got His soul back”? This is even more startling than “God caught His breath.” Yet it is supportable if we understand that God’s purpose in laying down the rules for the seventh day of rest is for our benefit and to regain our souls. Our tradition already teaches that we are given an extra soul on Shabbat. It stays with us until Shabbat departs on Saturday night with the Havdalah service. The extra soul always is part of who we are, but during the work week we get caught up with our affairs, and it’s distant and estranged.
Does God need any of these actions — to refresh or catch His breath or get His soul back? Of course not, but we do. When God reinforces the commandments concerning Shabbat, it is for the benefit of His beloved “very good” creation, humankind.
The word vayinafash appears in the third verse of the Rothblum version of V’shamru. Perhaps it is time to add a fourth verse: “On the seventh day, we rested and were refreshed, caught our breath and found our second soul.” PJC
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.