This week, we read portion Re’eh. Within its several chapters, Moses continues to review all the laws, statutes and commandments that every Israelite was bound to follow. More importantly, Moses points to the concept of freedom of choice. That is, the people can choose either to follow the path of the Torah or not. Naturally, they will thus either be rewarded or punished, depending on their choice. The point is, though, that they do and will have a choice, much as we today have a choice.
In one section, Moses reminds the people about the laws of tithing, that is, setting aside one-tenth of one’s produce, and bringing that tithe to the Temple in Jerusalem. Interestingly, for those who lived too far from Jerusalem to actually bring a tithe, there was an option to go to the Temple, buy the food there, then join in the festivities. In the meantime, all of the leftover food, crops and what have you were left for the Levites, who had minimal land to cultivate, and for the stranger, the orphan, the widow – thus everyone benefited from the giving of the tithe.
The portion mentions three specific products that are singled out for the tithe: corn (it’s probably more correct to call it grain, and most likely wheat), olive oil and wine. These items were not easy to produce, and a successful harvest represented God’s grace. Today, in order for us to obtain corn, oil and wine, we simply head to the nearest grocery store. Back then, it was understatedly more difficult.
These three items are mentioned in the Shema prayer, which reflects their importance. And when you think of it, they play a significant role even in our present-day traditions. Take a look at any Shabbat table and you see challah, representing the grain; candles, representing the olive oil; and wine, representing itself.
And then, when we bid farewell to Shabbat with the havdalah ceremony, we once again notice these three items – wine, candles and, this time, instead of challah, spices, which also represent the earth’s growth. Thus, these three ingredients form the crust of the sandwich, with Shabbat between them. The Shabbat begins and ends with wine, oil and some representation of successful crops.
And the lessons in all of this? Well, there are probably dozens, and here is just one of them. The Talmud teaches that when one gives a tithe, he or she will eventually have more, not less. This “more” does not necessarily mean material gain; the simple joy of giving can and often does surpass the actual value of the sacrificed crops that made up the tithe.
Now, we don’t need to stretch too far to imagine that Shabbat, itself, is a tithe of sorts – not 10 percent, but 14 percent. After all, Judaism asks us to give up a roughly 24-hour period of the week, and devote it to God. And God asks us to leave our business, our weekday routine, our hectic lifestyle and give that day to the one above; to rest, to enjoy, to eat, drink, sing and have a grand time – resembling the atmosphere when the ancient Israelites brought their tithes to the Temple.
Earlier, I mentioned the Talmudic notion that when one gives up his/her tithe, he/she will receive more than what was given. Can we apply that same idea to the Shabbat? Can we say that the day one gives up for Shabbat is more than made up, several times over? Can we take the view that rather than making the week less than it is, we can make it more than it is by observing Shabbat?
Those who observe Shabbat would probably answer with a resounding yes! The true gift of Shabbat, they would say, is that it makes the six other days so special, thus making Shabbat even more special. Others might see Shabbat as more of a day of hindrance, a nuisance, something you just wait to end – a view that simply dilutes the major message of Shabbat.
Religious decisions are private decisions, and that’s the way it should remain. I do hope, though, that we take the time to think about this special tithe we are asked to offer every week and that we discover how we can help Shabbat enrich our lives. Ahad Ha’am, essayist and foremost Zionist thinker, has been quoted as proclaiming: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Let it continue to be so … .
ETHAN ADLER is the rabbi at Temple Beth David in Narragansett.