The beginning of this week’s Torah reading is another example of a text that would seem very harsh if understood literally. Exodus 35:2 says “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of complete rest before the LORD; anyone who does any work on it shall be put to death.”
Those who were present this past Shabbat may recall we discussed, among other things, two different phrases used for the death penalty in the Torah. One is “that soul shall be cut off from its people” and the other is “shall be put to death.” The first type, known as karet, “cutting off,” is understood by the sages as a death penalty to be carried out by God, not by humans. But the second is understood as to be carried out by human courts.
By the time of the late Second Temple Period, the sages had almost entirely eliminated capital punishment through a series of procedural and evidentiary requirements so stringent as to be virtually impossible to meet. We don’t know to what extent the death penalty for Sabbath violations was actually carried out in biblical times, though Numbers 15:32 - 26 tells the story of a man who was stoned to death for gathering sticks on Shabbat.
I’m quite confident that no one reading my brief weekly commentary would think it was a good idea to put people to death for working on Shabbat. So what are we to do with this commandment?
Our Etz Hayyim commentary gives us one helpful thought, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690 - 1764) to the extent that a Jew who does not observe Shabbat “becomes dead to the spiritual dimension of life.” Jewish lore holds that we are given a neshama yeteira, an additional soul, on Shabbat -- “a person who makes no distinction between Shabbat and the weekday forfeits that gift.”
I think there is some truth to this. If we are “too busy” to observe Shabbat, we are probably busier than God wants us to be.