This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Moses's Big Day *

The revelation of the Torah, according to Jewish tradition, took place on Shavuot. Somewhat less well-known is a tradition which states that the momentous event also coincided with the Sabbath; the relevant chronological calculations were discussed in meticulous detail by the sages of the Talmud.

In light of this fact, it should not surprise us that the standard Saturday morning service contains a poetic allusion to that revelation: "Let Moses rejoice in the portion that was bestowed on him, for you called him a faithful servant." This short liturgical passage goes on to celebrate the great prophet's receiving the two tablets upon which was etched the commandment to observe the Sabbath.

This prayer probably originated as part of a longer liturgical poem (piyyuṭ). Like many such works, it was presumably treated as an optional selection whose recitation was subject to the discretion of the cantor or the local custom.

Nevertheless, there is something quite astonishing about a report preserved in a prominent medieval collection of Jewish customs, that "our Rabbi Solomon would not recite the 'Let Moses Rejoice' section."

The "Rabbi Solomon" in question was evidently the great commentator Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, Rashi--though this particular custom of his is not attested anywhere else in the voluminous literature produced by him and his school. Nevertheless, the misgivings raised by Rabbi Solomon were shared by several other distinguished medieval Jewish authorities.

Rashi's objection, as reported by our source, was that "he could not fathom what Moses's rejoicing had to do with the Sabbath!" Furthermore, in a work titled "Rabbi Solomon's Commentary on the Liturgy," which provides minutely detailed interpretations of the prayers in the Sabbath services, the "Let Moses Rejoice" lines are passed over with nary a word of commentary as if they did not exist.

Now, this objection is very puzzling, to say the least. After all, the point of the passage seems unmistakably clear when it links Moses to the Sabbath in his capacity as the conveyor of the fifth commandment of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai. Moreover, it is unimaginable that Rashi would have suffered from a temporary lapse of memory with respect to the talmudic tradition about the Torah's being revealed on a Saturday. Evidently, we must assume that for some reason he was not satisfied with either of these associations.

A possible reason for Rashi's objection was that he felt that the poet should not have singled out Moses for special credit in this context. After all, the Torah and the Sabbath were addressed to the entire people of Israel, and Moses's role in the process was merely that of an intermediary. It might therefore be inappropriate to imply, as this prayer seems to do, that any individual human-- even if it is the greatest of the prophets--has a closer relationship to the Sabbath that the rest of us. Perhaps, this was the same line of reasoning that impelled the compilers of the Passover Haggadah to avoid mentioning Moses in that service as well.

As we might expect, several subsequent rabbinic scholars took up the challenge of defending the "Let Moses Rejoice" prayer. Rashi's own grandson, Rabbi Jacob Tam, justified its recitation it by referring to a passage in the Talmud in which the Almighty instructed Moses: "I have a precious gift in my treasure-house, and its name is 'Sabbath'; and I wish to bestow it upon Israel. Now go and notify them." The liturgical reference is accordingly to the unique privilege that was conferred on Moses to serve as God's special agent for conveying that priceless divine blessing to Israel.

Some other commentators voiced a rather different objection, one that related to the fundamental functions of Jewish worship. Prayers, they argued, should be devoted either to praising the Creator or to submitting before him our needs and petitions. However, the "Let Moses Rejoice" passage, by focusing on the deeds or praises of a particular mortal rather than addressing the Almighty, fulfils neither of those functions, and for that reason it might  be deemed an inappropriate text for the occasion.

A rebuttal to this objection was provided by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (thirteenth century) in his Or Zarua compendium. While conceding that the text might not qualify in itself as a prayer in the narrowest sense of the concept, he argued that it nevertheless contains an implied understanding that we are entreating the Lord to invoke on our behalf the merits that must surely pertain to the day of the Torah's revelation, and to the the illustrious prophet who facilitated that revelation.
Not everybody, however, was satisfied with these explanations, and some commentators sought to identify a more tangible and personal connection between Moses and the institution of the Sabbath. They found this connection in the guise of an expansion of the Exodus story that was making the rounds in the works of several medieval authors.

The legend described negotiations that took place between Moses and Pharaoh on the question of how to treat the Hebrew slaves most efficiently. In the end, Moses succeeded in persuading the tyrant that it made good business sense to allow his subjects a weekly day of rest from their toil, so that they could recharge their batteries and work even harder during the remaining six days. Moses was allowed to choose which day should be designated as the day of rest, and he chose Saturday. The selection is depicted as Moses's personal choice, and one version of the legend ascribed it to astrological calculations. In one glaring leap of historical anachronism, Moses even chastised Pharaoh for treating his slaves worse than other workers, in that all other nations of the world had accepted the institution of the six-day work week. Later, when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, Moses was delighted to discover that he had fortuitously anticipated the divine commandment of the Sabbath on the seventh day. 

This, then, was the true meaning of Moses's rejoicing at Sinai as described in our liturgical text.

The basic narrative outline of this story circulated in a number of different versions. In some of them, it was Pharaoh who initiated the negotiations when he realized that the Hebrews were collapsing under their burden, or that their labour was producing shoddy results; whereas in other texts, Moses was warning Pharaoh of the potential consequences of overworking his slaves. One writer, evidently unable to stomach the idea that the obstinate despot would be amenable to such a civil arbitration process, transformed the whole negotiating process into one between Moses and God.
There remain many unanswered questions surrounding Rashi's objections to the "Let Moses Rejoice" prayer. Perhaps some of them will be resolved by new discoveries of lost manuscripts. Nevertheless, underlying this intricate web of scholarly exegesis and legendary narratives we may discern a remarkable bond that joins together the central pillars of Jewish tradition: the revelation at Sinai, the Sabbath and the prophecy of Moses

As the wise Ecclesiastes assured us, "a threefold cord is not quickly broken."


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[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 20, 2011, p. 6.
  • For further reading:
    • Jacobson, B. S. Netiv Binah. Tel-Aviv: Sinai, 1973.
    • Rothschild, Jacob. "Tefillot Sheva' Shel Yom Ha-Shabbat." Ma'ayanot 10 (1974): 147-167.
    • Wieder, Naftali. "The Controversy About the Liturgical Composition 'Yismaḥ Moshe'--Opposition and Defence." In Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. E. Fleischer and Jakob Josef Petuchowski, 75-99. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1981.