This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Sabbath: To Feast or to Fast?*

Our familiar Shabbat has so much to do with eating and drinking that we might well feel bewildered to hear that many ancient writers believed that Jews celebrated their holy day by abstaining from food.

According to the first-century Roman historian Pompeius Trogus, Moses instituted the Sabbath as a fast day in order to commemorate the Israelites' seven days of deprivation when they trekked through the Arabian desert on their way to Mount Sinai. Augustus Caesar once wrote to Tiberius "Not even a Jew fasts so scrupulously on his Sabbaths as I have today."

The satirist Petronius speculated about the dire fates in store for uncircumcised Jews who, as he wryly put it, would be exiled by their intolerant coreligionists to Greek cities where they would be unable to observe their Sabbath fasts. And Martial tried to insult a correspondent by accusing him of having a breath that smelled "worse than one of those Sabbath-fasting Jewish women."

Our first reaction is to marvel at how so many writers, including some of the most respected names in Greek and Latin letters, could have gotten their facts so absurdly wrong. If anything, Shabbat is a day of overeating, during which it is mandatory to partake of at least three meals. Except in very rare cases, fasting is strictly prohibited.

Many scholars dismissed this stubborn inaccuracy as yet another ignorant stereotype about Jews that was copied indiscriminately from author to author in spite of the fact that it had no basis in reality.

However, if we examine the talmudic sources more carefully, we discover that the attitudes of the ancient Jewish sages towards eating on the Sabbath were more ambivalent than might be suggested by our current practice.

Take for example the case of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who insisted on drawing out his classes for the entire day, and expressed disdain at the faint-hearted students who snuck away to join their family repasts.

Rabbi Yosé ben Zimra went so far as to declare that Jews who fasted on Shabbat were assured of the cancellation of any negative decrees that had been issued against them by the heavenly court.

It would appear therefore that, alongside the mainstream view that regarded Shabbat as a day of physical as well as spiritual delight, there existed a significant minority of sages who wanted it to be a day of exclusively spiritual contemplation, on which physical desires should be minimized or suppressed.

It is likely that at the root of this ancient dispute lay divergent interpretations of the story of the giving of the manna in Exodus 16. According to the biblical narrative, the Israelites were informed that they would be issued a double ration on Friday because no manna would descend on the Sabbath.

The usual way or understanding this episode is that the double ration would suffice for meals on both Friday and Saturday.

It is conceivable, however, that some interpreters read the story as a mandate for eating double quantities on Friday in order to allow the people to refrain from nourishment on the following day, in a manner analogous to the "concluding meal" that precedes Yom Kippur.

In fact, the Torah's designation of the Day of Atonement as a "Sabbath of Sabbaths" could be read as implying that the weekly day of rest should be equated in all respects to Yom Kippur, and therefore should be observed also as a fast

Talmudic tradition insisted that the requirement to eat three meals is rooted in the words of the Torah. However, the proof text that is adduced for the practice is rather contrived, to say the least. It is based on the fact that the word "day" appears three times in the verse (Exodus 16:25): "And Moses said, Eat that [i.e., the manna] today; for the day is a sabbath unto the Lord; this day ye shall not find it in the field."

Even if we are not convinced by the midrashic attempt to squeeze three meals out of the verse, it might nonetheless be conceded that the scriptural text contains an explicit association between eating and the Sabbath.

We must imagine that the advocates of Shabbat fasting read the words as if they said "eat the manna today [i.e., Friday] because tomorrow will be the Sabbath day, when you will be unable to do so."

There are several passages in the Talmud that extol the virtues of eating three meals on Shabbat, and consider it an expression of extraordinary piety. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi stated in the name of Bar Kappara that those who partook of all the required meals would be spared the torments of the "birth-pangs of the Messiah," the judgment of Gehenna and the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog. Other teachers promised unlimited boundaries, or immunity from subjection to foreign nations.

If eating three meals on Shabbat were a clear-cut precept from the Torah, it is difficult to imagine why so many of the sages described it as an act of unusual devotion that warranted special pride, or even supernatural rewards. For this reason, Rabbi Jacob Tam deduced in the Tosafot that the practice of eating three meals must not have been well entrenched during the talmudic era.

The prophet Isaiah's injunction to "call the sabbath a delight" does not strike us initially as congruent with total abstention from eating. However, we must acknowledge that different people find delight in different activities. Though conventional Jewish tradition equated delight with eating and drinking, there have always been individuals whose preference is for more spiritual or intellectual gratification.

Indeed, to judge from the accounts by the first-century Jewish writers Philo Judaeus of Alexandria and Josephus Flavius, the Jewish populace spent the seventh day assembled in the synagogues for meditation and philosophical instruction.

From all of this evidence emerges an ambiguous picture of the ideal Shabbat. The opposing positions were epitomized in the Jerusalem Talmud in the contrasting views of two third-century rabbis. One declared: "The festivals and Sabbaths were given to Israel purely for the sake of eating and drinking"; while the other insisted "The festivals and Sabbaths were given to Israel purely for the sake of Torah study."

For the most part, Jewish tradition strove to arrive at a middle ground between those extremes. Some sources made a distinction between the practices of scholars, who spent the week in study and therefore needed physical relaxation on the Sabbath, and normal working folk for whom the Sabbath provided the only opportunity to indulge their spiritual needs.

The most widespread compromise solution was to divide the day equally between physical and sacred pursuits, spending half a day in prayer and study, and the other half in eating and repose.

The advocates of the foodless day of rest have long since been swept to the margins of our tradition. Nevertheless, in our weight-conscious society there might yet be a market that will be attracted by the prospect of a non-fattening Sabbath.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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