Embrace Shabbos Chapter 12: The Cleansing Power Of Shabbos Preparations

Rabbi David Sutton May 23, 2024

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The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 56:3) observes that in the Torah’s account of Akeidas Yitzchak — of Avraham Avinu placing his son, Yitzchak, on the altar and preparing to slaughter him in compliance with Hashem’s command — the Torah refers to Avraham’s knife with the term ma’acheles. A knife is occasionally called ma’acheles, a term that stems from the root “achal”) eat), because it is used to slaughter animals so their meat may be consumed. In the specific context of Akeidas Yitzchak, however, the Midrash comments that this term alludes to the fact that the Jewish people, the descendants of Avraham Avinu, continue “eating” and benefiting from the merit of this great act of self-sacrifice and subservience to the Divine Will to this very day.

The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu, Parashas Vayeira) poses the question of how to reconcile the Midrash’s comment with the well-established principle that the reward for mitzvos is granted in the Next World, and not in this world (Kiddushin 39b). How do we benefit here in this world from the great mitzvah of Akeidas Yitzchak, if our Sages teach that we receive reward for mitzvos only in the Next World?

The Gaon answers that the Midrash refers to the reward the Jewish people receive for all the extensive preparations that Avraham made to sacrifice his son. Of course, he never actually performed the sacrifice, as at the last moment Hashem sent an angel who ordered him to withdraw his knife. The rewards that we receive, then, are only for the preparations — the three-day journey to Mount Moriah, binding Yitzchak upon the altar, preparing the knife, and so on.

Preparing for any mitzvah yields very significant rewards. It is through the efforts we invest before the mitzvah is performed, in preparation for the act, that we earn great merit.

This is especially true of Shabbos. The Toras Chaim (Eruvin 19a) writes that our preparation for Shabbos parallels our preparation in this world for our lives in the eternal world. As Shabbos is mei’ein Olam Haba — a glimpse of the Next World, our preparations for Shabbos are to resemble our preparations for the afterlife. In order for a person to earn a share in the Next World, he must be spiritually pure. Those whose souls have been contaminated in this world must undergo a “cleansing” process before they gain entry into the Next World. Correspondingly, halachah requires us to bathe with warm water on Erev Shabbos as part of our preparations for Shabbos. This cleansing of our bodies represents the cleansing of our souls, a necessary prerequisite for experiencing the beauty and splendor of the Next World.

It emerges, then, that preparing for Shabbos has a “cleansing” effect upon our souls. The hard work and effort we invest in preparing for Shabbos, even bathing, has a very significant spiritual impact, preparing our souls to receive the special kedushah of Shabbos.

Further insight into this “cleansing” power can be gleaned from a remarkable comment by the Ben Ish Chai. Halachah requires washing our hands each morning when we awaken in order to remove the tumah (impurity) that descends upon our hands as we sleep. The Ben Ish Chai explains this concept by way of an analogy to the body’s circulatory system. When a person’s blood is not circulating properly, this condition is manifest specifically in the body’s extremities — the fingers and feet. They turn blue and do not function properly, because the blood does not reach these outermost regions of the body. Similarly, the Ben Ish Chai writes, when a person wakes up in the morning, most of the contamination that descended over the course of the night leaves, but it remains on the body’s extremities. Therefore, one is required to wash specifically the hands each morning.

However, as the Ben Ish Chai proceeds to note, this gives rise to the question of why halachah does not also require washing one’s feet each morning. If the tumah on the body’s extremities remains when one awakens, then why must he wash only his hands?

The Ben Ish Chai answers that halachah does not require washing one’s feet in the morning because this would not suffice to eliminate the tumah. Since the feet tread continually on the ground, the tumah on the feet is so entrenched that it cannot be removed through washing. The exception to this rule, the Ben Ish Chai adds, are the Kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash, who are required to wash their hands and feet before entering the Beis HaMikdash. The special sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash makes it possible to eliminate the tumah even from the feet, and so although we are not required to wash our feet each morning, the Kohanim are required to wash their feet before entering the Beis HaMikdash.

Remarkably, there is also a second exception — Erev Shabbos. The Ben Ish Chai writes that halachah requires us to wash, minimally, our face, hands, and feet every Erev Shabbos in preparation for Shabbos. The reason is that just as the sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash makes it possible for the Kohanim to eliminate the tumah from their feet, the special sanctity of Shabbos similarly has this unique ability. Shabbos preparations offer us an opportunity that is otherwise reserved exclusively for the Kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash — to thoroughly cleanse our souls and achieve a pristine level of spiritual purity.

Our Sages note that although Avraham had numerous servants, he himself saddled his donkey and made the necessary preparations for Akeidas Yitzchak. Years later, when Bilaam set out to place a curse upon Bnei Yisrael, he specifically saddled his own donkey, rather than asking one of his servants to do so, in an effort to “counter” Avraham’s enthusiasm. Bilaam keenly understood the power of preparation, and sought to use this power for his evil plot to destroy Bnei Yisrael. We are to follow the inspiring example of Avraham, who utilized the power of preparation for the purpose of serving Hashem and bringing kedushah into the world. Let us, then, joyfully and enthusiastically prepare for Shabbos each week, recognizing the great benefits and impact of these efforts.


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Reprinted from Embrace Shabbos by Rabbi David Sutton with permission from Artscroll Mesorah.