Beyond being lots of fun to sing - unless your tradition is to slowly repeat the chorus after every verse, in which case it sometimes transmutes into the Jewish version of "the song that does not end" - Dayenu is chock full of rich ideas. Here's just one example.
Dayenu features praises for a wide range of events that unfolded over the course of the Exodus. Intriguingly, the only mitzvah for which we thank Hashem independently in Dayenu is that of resting on the seventh day: “natan lanu et ha-Shabbat," “He gave us the Sabbath.” Why do we thank Hashem specifically for this mitzvah above and beyond all others?
Indeed, some commentaries (Orchot Chaim and Shibbolei ha-Leket, cited in Torat Chaim Haggadah) go so far as to suggest that the praise of Shabbat is not independent but deepens the praise for the man, which appears in the previous clause: that the man didn't fall on Shabbat, yet the previous day's portion did not grow moldy, evidences the man's miraculous qualities. This intepretation, however, does not accord with the face reading of Dayenu, and so our question regarding Shabbat's unique appearance remains unresolved.
In a similar vein, Shabbat receives preferential treatment in other contexts as well. Take the case of the tefillot on yom tov that falls out on Shabbat. In the blessing of “Atta Bechartanu” we invoke the term “ahavah” twice: first to designate God’s love as manifest on the chagim, and second exclusively when yom tov falls out on Shabbat. And this despite the fact that the second "ahavah" appears in a phrase that refers to yom tov as well: "be'ahavah mikra kodesh." This seems problematic. As we say in Talmudic parlance, mah nafshach, loosely translated as “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Either yom tov is an expression of God’s love for the Jewish people or it is not. If it is such an expression, why do we only add “ahavah” a second time when yom tov falls out on Shabbat? If it is not, why do we refer to “ahavah” at all?!
Or take the Gemara in Shabbat (10b), which denotes Shabbat as a “matanah genuzah," a gift that God has stored away for the Jewish people. In our prayers on Shabbat morning, we similarly designate Shabbat as “matnat chelko,” “the gift of His portion.” Why is Shabbat of all mitzvot singled out as God’s special present to the Jewish people? Don’t we view all mitzvot as His gifts?
Finally, peering through a wider lens, it's curious that only the Jewish people were given the mitzvah of Shabbat. After all, as opposed to the historical events commemorated by Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, which celebrate God’s intervention in history on behalf of the Jewish people in particular, the events of creation are universal in scope. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) goes so far as to assert that a gentile is not permitted to fully observe Shabbat. Why not? Shouldn’t just the opposite be the case? Gentiles should be encouraged, if not obligated, to join the Jewish people in testifying that Hashem is the Creator?!
To better understand these difficulties, let's examine an episode that transpires shortly after the Exodus. The Jews find themselves in the Desert of Sinai. Despite God's command to the contrary, a number of Jews defiantly emerge from their tents to collect the man on Shabbat. Moshe scolds: “Ad matay mei’antem lishmor mitzvotay chukotay ve-torotay? Re’u ki Hashem natan lachem et yom ha-Shabbat.” “For how long will you refuse to observe my commandments, rules, and teachings? You see, God has given you the Sabbath” (Shemot 16:28). It is unclear what Moshe Rabbeinu is driving at in the latter phrase. Isn't the admonition that Hashem gave the Shabbat simply stating the obvious?
Seforno offers a stirring interpretation: Moshe Rabbeinu is formulating two distinct arguments: Shabbat is first and foremost an obligation. Beyond that, however, the term “giving” denotes that Shabbat is also a gift, as we declare in our tefillot. Observe the Shabbat, argues Moshe, for two reasons: because you must and because you may. It is both obligation and opportunity.
Seforno's approach, however, leaves two key questions unresolved: In what sense is Shabbat a gift? And why does it earn this designation whereas other mitzvot do not? It would appear, then, that Moshe Rabbeinu’s argument runs as follows: at first glance, as we noted earlier, Shabbat should not be the province of the Jewish people in particular; it should be universal in scope. The only explanation for the Jews’ having been given Shabbat is as an outpouring of God’s love. To some extent, it is not fully explicable why Hashem chose to give us this day. Which is precisely the point. The gifting of Shabbat, argues Moshe, was an act of pure ahavah.
We can now neatly resolve our earlier questions. Gentiles may not observe Shabbat precisely because it is reflective of God's unique relationship with the Jewish people. The Gemara and liturgy denote Shabbat a gift for the same reason. And as the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 242:1) beautifully explains in his introduction to the laws of Shabbat, we add an additional “ahavah” in our Shabbat-yom tov tefillot, because while the shalosh regalim represent God’s love in having miraculously interceded in history on our behalf, Shabbat goes a step further, capturing a unique dimension of our relationship. The additional term ahavah is therefore reserved for yom tov that coincides with Shabbat.[^n]
Finally, in regard to its special treatment in Dayenu, the Ra'avan (Torat Chaim Haggadah), as well as both the Brisker Rav (Hagadah leveit Brisk) and Sfat Emet (Parshat Beshalach) - in other words, Mitnagdim and Chasidim alike - reference the sugya in Shabbat which identifies Shabbat as a matanah genuzah, and invoke the precedent of the narrative of Shemot Chapter 16. Shabbat is singled out in Dayenu not because it is a mitzvah but because it is a present.
The dizzying technological upheavals of our time pose unique challenges to the proper observance of Shabbat. There is an acute need to equip ourselves with arguments with which we can remind ourselves and others of its sacredness. Bearing in mind Moshe’s profound insight, as well as Shabbat's special appearance in Dayenu, will hopefully inspire us to reciprocate to God the love manifest in His gift to us.
This post is adapted from an article originally published in Kohelet Beit Midrash's student publication, Hakol Nishma.