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Beyond the boundaries of human existence

Time, the mystery of our existence, breaks the boundaries of all Jewish holidays, of Shabbos, and of the Sabbatical year, shmita. The holidays themselves represent “islands in time,” as A. J. Heschel put it. The agricultural, Sabbatical year, which is an interruption of its own cycle of time, is also an island. What would it mean to break the boundaries of islands in time? For example, doesn’t Yom Kippur already break the boundaries of time? Isn’t Yom Kippur qualitatively different from any other period during the year?

The Talmud notes: Yom Kippur is designated by the Torah as the tenth of the month of Tishrei, yet the Torah also says, “You shall afflict yourselves on the ninth of the month in the evening, from evening to evening . . .” (Lev. 23:32). “Affliction” means fasting on Yom Kippur and its other restrictions: no washing, no leather shoes, no anointing, no marital relations. When do these afflictions begin? Do they begin on the ninth of Tishrei, or in the evening of the tenth of Tishrei?

The Talmud elucidates the apparent contradiction this way: the fast begins while it is still day, on the ninth of Tishrei; that is, before Yom Kippur formally begins. How long does the fast last? “From evening to evening,” that is, into the eleventh of Tishrei, after Yom Kippur formally ends.1

One adds onto Yom Kippur some time before it and after it. The Talmud terms this “adding from the weekday onto the holy” or “investing the mundane with the holy” (mosifim me-ha-chol al ha-kodesh). One breaks the boundaries of the sacred time. This applies not only to Yom Kippur but to Shabbos and all Jewish holidays, as explained below.

How much time should be added?

Opinions among the Talmudic commentators vary, but there must be a limit. Otherwise, if, for example, one added onto the beginning of Shabbos a few hours, one would be marking Shabbos on the sixth day, not the seventh day.

Typically, Shabbos candles are lit 18 minutes before the formal beginning of Shabbos at sunset. In Jerusalem, the custom is to light 40 minutes before sunset.

Shabbos and Jewish holidays, not just Yom Kippur, break the boundaries of time, based on another tic in the Torah, “you shall rest your rest” (also in Lev. 23:32), i.e, you shall add to your restful day. The Talmud deduces from this unusual wording that just as one adds onto Yom Kippur at both ends, the same applies to Shabbos and all Jewish holidays (Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah).2

The same is true for the Sabbatical year, based on Exodus 34:21, “Six days shall you work and on the seventh day you shall desist; you shall desist from plowing and harvesting.” This seems to single out plowing and harvesting as forbidden Shabbos labors3 or as forbidden Sabbatical-year labors.4 However, since plowing and harvesting are forbidden on Shabbos and during shmita elsewhere in the Torah, Talmudic exegesis says, desist from plowing a bit of time before the commencement of the shmita year and desist from harvesting a bit after it. “Invest the mundane with the holy.”

What is the Torah teaching here? What does it mean to take a designated holy time and extend it at its beginning and end? What does it mean to break the boundaries of sacred time?

On the level of actual observance, these added minutes are a pure Divine gift. Not only does the holy day itself relieve us of the burdens and worries of the weekday, but we are granted extra time at both ends.

Think of the big difference that an encore makes — the little addition to any special occasion: a concert, a reunion, a family simcha, an inauguration. A little extra time is icing on a cake.

On a deeper level, it would seem impossible to extend a point of contact with infinity. Shabbos, for example, is meant to elevate us beyond the constraints of time to put us in touch with the Creator of time. G-d is infinite. G-d is above time. G-d allows the human being an interruption in the inevitable flow of mundane time to reach beyond it and experience something of G-d’s infinity on every seventh day and on all Jewish holidays. This unique span and experience transcends time. Should it not be impossible to extend?

The additional minutes before and after the formal start of Shabbos, of Jewish holidays and of the shmita year serve as a reminder: Do not take these special times for granted. Do not treat them as mere vacations, conveniences, or getaways. Know that a metaphysical gift is bestowed on you. Appreciate the spiritual opportunity for what it is.

A recent book extolled the benefits of Shabbos, which the author characterized as completely taking a day off. Really taking off — separating from technology, for example. The author recounts the benefits to her and her family of being with one another, undistracted by weekday worries. It doesn’t matter whether it is a Saturday or a Tuesday, she wrote, just do it. You’ll see. Take a day to separate from the world. Any day. It works.

In fact, this “humanistic Sabbath” may work on a certain level, but it misses the essence of Shabbos and all Jewish holy days. Their laws compel us to take the day off; true enough. But this goal resides within a sacred responsibility and opportunity. Sacred periods in Judaism are vertical, not just horizontal. They bestow the rare moments of intensive experience of G-d, not just rare moments of contact with ourselves and with family. They infuse life with a spiritual purpose and charge.

If our existence is bound up with time, G-d, family and self, then to go beyond time, beyond the boundaries of existence, is to embrace G-d as well as family and self.

G-d has created us as material beings, inherently bound by the limits of our material world. Surely we should not wish to deny ourselves the fullness of G-d’s periodic gifts, the experience of G-d Himself, as He breaks the boundaries of our existence. To do otherwise is akin to self-inflicted blindness, denying ourselves not just the beauty of the color wheel but its animating essence: sheer white light.


1. Yoma 81b.

2. Ibid.

3. Shabbat 70a.

4. Rosh Hashanah 9a.

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