To begin with, V’shamru is the continuation of a theme, and the conclusion of a paragraph at that; it is not a stand-alone piece of text as you might expect from seeing it in the siddur. The theme of observing Shabbat was introduced as the 4th commandment back in Yitro. There, the basic gist of the how and why of the Sabbath is given. Here, though, G-d takes it to the next level. The 4 verses preceding V’shamru contain, according to the Rabbis and through literal reading, many new details and concepts. There is an odd word choice in v. 13 (Ach, either “however”, “nevertheless”, or “but”) which suggests that the labors prohibited on Shabbat are those which are involved with the construction of the Tabernacle, but that there would be exclusions, such as saving a life. Shabbat is referred to in the plural, either suggesting that each and every Shabbat should be observed, or that there is a form of duality to the Sabbath—Divine vs. human, the positive commandments we perform on Shabbat vs. the negative commandments we avoid, the Sabbaths we observe completely vs. the ones where we might fall short of the mark. The notion of Shabbat as a sign between the Divine and humankind is introduced, with the goal of Israel being sanctified by G-d for its observance. According to Rashi and others, disregard of Shabbat following a warning as to its consequences is to be a capital offence imposed by the community, but a willful violation without warning will cause G-d to cut the violator off from the nation; in effect, a social and cultural death. Indeed, the lack of observance of this timeless commandment, so often partially or totally disregarded in modernity, has had the effect of causing a spiritual and cultural death or separation of sorts among those who do so. No wonder our tradition tells us that if every Jew would scrupulously observe two Sabbaths in a row, the Messiah will come!
Which brings us to our text—an incredible summary which, given all the subtleties and intricacies which have preceded, blurs the lines between G-d and Man as we discuss the time and place where we meet the closest, Shabbat. The verb “to observe (la’asot)” in the first line is the same verb with which G-d’s establishment of Shabbat in Genesis concludes. The brit, covenant, of Shabbat implies a personal, two-way relationship, rather than a “you will do this because I commanded it” imperative. “Observance of Shabbat is rewarded by holiness” is mirrored by “G-d’s holiness is what inspires the observance of Shabbat.” More remarkably, G-d refers to Him/Her/Theirself in the first person and in starkly anthropomorphic terms, implying that rest on the 7th day was not merely a cessation of labor, but that G-d required the literal rest, like a human, and was therefore “refreshed (vayinafash).” This final word, of course, is derived from the word nefesh (soul), suggesting the “second soul” we incorporate in partnership and unity with the Divine every Shabbat.
This week, as you recite “the” V’shamru, I hope you will do so with a renewed sense of appreciation. The text, while abundantly familiar, embodies so much nuance that a whole-hearted recitation can truly bring one closer to G-d for those 25 hours when we share common ground in holy partnership—Shabbos.Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen