Shabbat 69

In his book ‘Faith in the Future’, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that ‘the clearest contrast between communal faith and an individualistic culture’ can be seen in how we relate to time. In our individualistic culture, time is defined by the ‘personal organiser’ which represents time as a ‘private project’, while the Jewish communal faith ‘speaks of holy days to be shared with family and community, days where time is not mine to do with as I like but ours to live out together the truths we share and the history of which we are a part’. Undoubtedly, Shabbat is one of the greatest expressions of shared time and it is a day when we connect – through time – to God as the Creator of the world and to the collective spirit of the Jewish people who were commanded to observe the Shabbat.

However, in today’s daf (Shabbat 69b) we are asked to consider a unique scenario: what should someone do if they find themselves isolated in a location such as a desert and, perhaps through their dizzying travels, have lost track of what day of the week it is? According to Rav Huna, such a person should ‘count six days and then observe one day as Shabbat’, and this is the law as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 344:1).

But this solution raises a number of questions: Why do we encourage someone to observe a day of Shabbat that may actually not be Shabbat? Moreover, if Shabbat is, as noted, about connecting to a time period that is greater than ourselves, what is the significance of someone observing their own Shabbat at a different time?

According to Rashi (on Shabbat 69b DH Bikedushata), this rule was established by the Rabbis to ensure that even when a person is far away, and even when they don’t know which day is Shabbat, they should not forget the concept of Shabbat. What this means is that while the ‘true’ Shabbat celebrates historic time, communal time, and shared time, there may be situations when a person may be disconnected from these collective identities, but rather than saying that such a person is momentarily severed from the time-consciousness of the Jewish people, we encourage them to find a way to stay connected.

To my mind, this interpretation has significant applications – not only for those travelling in deserts, but also for those feeling disconnected from the Jewish community, and what we learn from here is that we should do all we can to help those who may be ebbing away from their Judaism to help them maintain a connection to Shabbat because, as Rabbi Sacks writes, ‘time is the medium within which we work out our inner freedom’.