“And Moses assembled all the congregation of the Children of Israel,
and said unto them: These are the words which God has commanded,
that you should do them.”
Abarbanel notes that the lead verse requires explanation. If Moshe gathered the Hebrews for the
purpose of issuing a command to build the Tabernacle, as it says, “These are the words which God has
commanded, that you should do them”, why does he first start with the mitzvah to observe Shabbat:
“Six days shall work be done?”
The question looms larger, Abarbanel asks, because the obligation to keep Shabbat had been broached
in an earlier section, the one discussing manna. Further, the Jews heard a repeat of the Shabbat
mitzvah, later on Sinai. Moreover, four chapters earlier, yet another reference to Shabbat observance
was mentioned. Hence, Abarbanel’s glaring question here: Why bring up Shabbat again?
One final point. In last week’s section, Ki Tisa, we find the Torah issued a warning to heed Shabbat after
wrapping up a broad discussion on the Mishkan. Yet, here we find the order reversed. Shabbat gets
mentioned prior to verses speaking about the Mishkan.
Abarbanel supplies a timeline. After Moshe descended from Sinai, he commanded the entire nation,
men and women, to gather outside of the camp, specifically in his lecture hall, or the Tent of Assembly.
The prophet intended to inform the masses what God had commanded. That is, each person should
donate to the Tabernacle enterprise. This follows the opinion of the classic Biblical scholar, the Ramban.
Likely, this assembly took place the day after Moshe had descended from Sinai. He conveyed to his
brethren that the Maker had forgiven and pardoned them for their iniquity. Moreover, the Shechinah
would rest in their midst. Wonders, stupendous wonders, would He do for them, beyond the likes of
which had ever been performed – anywhere or anytime.
Of course, the Hebrews delighted in the news. Ecstatic. That is when Moshe saw fit to teach them about
the Mishkan. To be clear, the prophet had learned of this divine commandment as he sat upon Sinai,
before his co-religionists had built a Molten Calf. When the Creator reconciled with His nation,
evidenced by the giving of the second set of Tablets, God entered into a covenant: the Shechinah would
dwell among the Hebrews.
The loving and intimate relationship between the Jews and God had been repaired, restored. Reclaimed
affection expression may be summed up in an earlier verse: “Build Me a Tabernacle that I may dwell in
your midst.” Thus, after divine anger subsided, a time of renewed intimacy had been ushered in.
That is precisely when Moshe bid his brethren to build the Tabernacle: “These are the words which God
has commanded, that you should do them.” At this juncture, the prophet cautioned the Hebrews to
observe Shabbat. This signaled that Mishkan’s and its vessels’ activities would take place during the six
work days of the week, Shabbat excluded, for it is a holy time for God. Put differently, Mishkan work
does not trump Shabbat sanctity, with its concomitant dos and don’ts.
This section’s third verse reads: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath
day.” Prohibiting fire on Shabbat taught the Jews that the sanctity of the seventh day exceeded that of
the Jewish festivals, where fire is permitted (in certain cases of food preparation or ochel nefesh).
With this important element in place, Abarbanel answers his original question regarding the seeming
peculiar insertion of the Shabbat verse in a section otherwise dedicated to the building of the
Tabernacle. It conveys the sanctity of the Sabbath, one which ranked higher even than the other major
festivals, celebratory occasions where fire may be permitted under proper circumstances (ochel nefesh).
As for the words “throughout your habitations”, they teach another Shabbat rule. Namely, the Hebrews
are obliged to keep Shabbat wherever they reside, in the Holy Land or elsewhere. Major Biblical writers
learn something else about this prepositional phrase: “throughout your habitations.” The prohibition
does not apply to the priests engaged in Mishkan activities (at least some of the holy activities, but
that’s for another blog).