Shabbat: A Time for Community

It’s interesting to consider the ways in which our zemirot, traditional songs, reflect profound insights into the significance of Shabbat and our holidays. One particularly intriguing example is closely connected to Parshat Bo.

In the song “Kol Mekadesh Shevi’i” we declare that “kol adat yisrael ya’asu oto,” “the entire congregation of Israel shall perform it.” This phrase originally appears in our Torah reading (Shemot 12:47). The song’s author borrows the phrase in regard to Shabbat. What might be the significance of this comparison?

Generally speaking, the world of sacrifices is divided into two major categories: private and national offerings. The case of the Korban Pesach, however, is an unusual one, in that it shares characteristics of both. On the one hand the Pesach is an individual obligation. Full-fledged communal sacrifices, such as the twice-daily tamid offerings, are only offered once on behalf of the community. By contrast, every individual was obligated to bring one’s own korban or share a stake (no pun intended) in the lamb with others. At the same time, the Pesach was obligated to be brought in “kenufya” (Yoma 51a), as part of a mass gathering of Jews in the Temple, who would simultaneously descend on the Temple courtyard on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nissan. On this basis, the Talmud (Pesakhim 79a and parallels) suggests that the Pesach shared certain characteristics with communal offerings. Indeed, in his commentary to the Mishnah (introduction to Kodshim), Rambam categorizes the Pesach as a hybrid of sorts: an individual sacrifice that nonetheless resembles a communal offering.

Arguably, the (anonymous) author of our song is alluding to a similar dichotomy in regard to the observance of Shabbat. On the one hand, Shabbat constitutes a personal obligation. Each Jew is required to fulfill kiddush and havdala and eat the Shabbat meals. Every individual is prohibited from violating the thirty-nine melachot and the pertaining rabbinic decrees. At the same time, the song hints to a communal aspect of the day: the greatest fulfillment of Shabbat comes in context of communal prayer and observance.

Numerous sources lend support to the thesis that Shabbat is invested with a communal dimension. The great medieval authority Nachmanides, for instance, argues that the term mikra kodesh, a holy convocation, implies that "on this day they will all be called in and gather to sanctify it, for there is an obligation to gather in the house of God on a holiday to sanctify him publicly with prayer and praise to God in clean clothing" (Commentary to Vayikra 23:2). A series of midrashim at the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel recommend that the community gather together on Shabbatot for public Torah study. Taz (O.C. 268:5) and Mishnah Berurah (ibid., 19), two outstanding latter-day authorities, recommend that Vayechulu, in which we "testify" to God's role in creation, should be recited in context of a minyan. All of this supports the notion that while Shabbat is first and foremost an individual obligation, it is invested with communal significance as well.

The discovery of Shabbat's communal dimension reflects just one instance of the manifold ways in which our religious songs and poetry serve as substantial repositories of Torah themes. May this example inspire us to further explore the blend of inspiration and profundity powerfully captured in our Shabbat songs.