May 18, 2024
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The Surface Explanation: Our Relationship With Shabbat

It is one of the best-known stories of the Gemara—the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat. As is typical of these stories, there is much more to gain than surface-level meaning.

Shabbat 119a records (William Davidson edition of the Talmud):

The Gemara relates with regard to Yosef who cherishes Shabbat: There was a gentile in his neighborhood whose property was extremely plentiful. The astrologers said to the gentile with regard to all his property: Yosef who cherishes Shabbat will consume it. The gentile went and sold all of his property, and with the money he received he bought a pearl, and he placed it in his hat. When he was crossing a river in a ferry, the wind blew his hat and cast it into the water, and a fish swallowed it. The fish was caught and removed from the water and it was brought to shore adjacent to nightfall on Shabbat eve. The fishermen said: Who buys fish at a time like this? The townspeople said to the fishermen: Go bring it to Yosef who cherishes Shabbat, as he regularly purchases delicacies in deference to Shabbat. They brought it to him and he purchased it. He ripped the fish open and found a pearl inside it. He sold it for 13 vessels filled with golden dinars (Tosafot). This elderly man who encountered him and said: One who lends to Shabbat, Shabbat repays him.

Of course, the base-level explanation of this story is that the more one invests in Shabbat, the more he derives from Shabbat. We Jews do not merely observe Shabbat. We have a relationship with Shabbat. As in any other connection, the more one invests, the more one derives from the bond. The beautiful zemirot of Shabbat magnificently reflect this idea (e.g., Ki Eshmera Shabbat, Kel Yishmereni). The Lecha Dodi poem powerfully expresses this idea, as does the Sephardic and chasidic practice of reading Shir HaShirim just before the onset of Shabbat.

 

The Lay Heroes of Shabbat

A host of essential lessons emerge from the Yosef Mokir Shabbat story. Foremost is that the greatest heroes of Shabbat are laypeople. Rabbis, generally speaking, do not face anywhere near the level of challenges the layperson encounters in his observance of Shabbat, for Shabbat observance is part of the rabbi’s profession! For example, the layperson must inform his boss that he must leave work at 2 p.m. on an early winter Friday when he just began the job a few weeks earlier. The lay aspiring young professional is tempted to violate Shabbat to earn a permanent position at the firm where he is working a summer internship.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik observes that the Gemara tells of great rabbanim and great laypeople like Yosef Mokir Shabbat. From Yosef Mokir Shabbat to the courage of Kivi Bernhard and the Orthodox Jewish executives at Mobileye when Intel insisted that the purchase of Mobileye for 15 billion dollars take place on Shabbat, the Shabbat observant laity is heroic!

Kivi Bernhard turned down an offer of a massive sum to serve as the keynote speaker on Shabbat about his best-selling book “Leopardology” at a Microsoft conference. I heard that the Mobileye executives organized a brilliant strategy to consummate the deal with Intel. Mobileye stationed its top brass at various locations worldwide so that at least one of its top leaders could be on the call with Intel when it was not Shabbat at their site. What a clever and creative, sound business strategy that remained entirely within the bounds of Shabbat observance! What a Kiddush Hashem!!

 

Think Bad, It Will Be Bad

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is famous for often asserting “Tracht gut, vet zein gut,” “think good, and it will be good.” Many will testify to the wisdom of this advice. Positive thinking creates a positive momentum, which often generates positive results. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Kohelet 7:14 teaches that “Zeh le’Umat zeh asa Elokim,” “Hashem has made the one and the other.” Hashem creates counterparts; the world is balanced. Hence, positive thinking can generate positive results, and negative thoughts, on the other hand, can yield negative results.

Negative thinking can create its own negative dynamic, leading to adverse outcomes. The gentile, who apparently is quite hostile to Yosef Mokir Shabbat (and perhaps to all Jews), is a paradigmatic example of how anxiety can cause calamity.

The gentile gathering all of his wealth and assembling it in one place acts counter to the basic rule of wealth preservation—diversification. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 42a) teaches that one should always divide his wealth into three parts: a third in real estate, a third in business investments, and a third in cash. The Gemara’s wisdom has been recognized far and wide. Even the legendary founder of Vanguard Investments, John Bogle, famously cites this Gemara in the introduction to his iconic work “Common Sense on Mutual Funds.”

Had the gentile ignored the pessimistic prediction of his fortune falling into the hands of a Jew, he would have fared well. His anxiety, however, caused him to suffer the calamity he needlessly feared would happen.

 

Diamond in the Fish

The image of a precious diamond hidden in a fish that was deemed valueless conveys a critical point. Yosef Mokir Shabbat discerned the value of the fish, whereas others did not. Yosef Mokir Shabbat recognizes that Shabbat is priceless and commensurately rewarded great wealth.

Sadly, too many Jews view Shabbat as worthless. They tragically do not see the “diamond embedded in the fish.” One blessed with a genuine “Jewish eye” recognizes the diamond hidden beneath the surface of Shabbat and is willing to make great sacrifices for its sake. Those who do so reap the bountiful benefits in this and the next world. When Bill Gates heard about Kivi Bernhard’s refusal to violate Shabbat even for a massive sum, he remarked, “That’s what happens when you have something that money can’t buy.” We eagerly await the day when all Jews recognize what Mr. Gates realized.

The elderly man who appears toward the conclusion of the story captures the core message of the Yosef Mokir Shabbat story—that one who honors Shabbat is richly rewarded for doing so. Significantly, an older man the Talmud does not describe as a Torah scholar makes this observation. Instead, he derives his conclusions based on life experiences in which he has witnessed Shabbat repaying those who honor it.

Conclusion:
Mining Aggadic Diamonds

The Yosef Mokir Shabbat episode is an exceptionally concise yet vibrant story. Like many Talmudic stories, it is deceptively simple. Yet, the discerning Jewish eye knows how to mine the gems lurking beneath the simple storyline. May we be amply rewarded for making the efforts to discover the diamonds of the Talmudic Agadda just waiting to be revealed, just like the precious diamond in Yosef Mokir Shabbat’s fish.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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