One of the greatest paradoxes of a life of faith concerns the need to work for a living. If G‑d is the source of all blessings, why toil to earn a livelihood? And if we do work, how can we avoid the thought that it is our labor alone that produces material results? We seem torn between absolute passivity and the denial of G‑d’s involvement in the world.

Thus the believer engages in what can be termed “passive labor.” In the opening verses of Vayak’hel, Moses instructs the people of Israel:

Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of sabbaths to G‑d . . .1

Not “six days shall you work,” but “six days shall work be done.” The passive form suggests that even during the week’s six workdays, when the Jew is permitted and obligated to work, he should be occupied with, but not preoccupied by, his material endeavors.

This is how chassidic teaching interprets the verse, “If you will eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you.”2 What King David is implying, say the chassidic masters, is that the labor in which a person engages for his material needs (so that “you will eat”) should be only “of your hands”—an activity of the outer man, not an inward involvement. One’s “hands” and “feet” should attend to one’s material endeavors, while one’s thoughts and feelings remain bound up with G‑dly things. This is the same concept as that implied by the verse, “Six days shall work be done.” One does not do the work; it is “done,” as if of its own accord. The heart and mind are elsewhere, and only the person’s practical faculties are engaged in the work.

The Jew works not to “make a living,” but only to fashion a keli (“vessel”) to receive G‑d’s blessings. This is what the Torah means when it says, “And the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do”.3 Man is not sustained by his own efforts, but through G‑d’s blessing; it is only that G‑d desires that His blessing should realize itself in and through “all that you do.” Man’s work merely provides a natural channel for the divine blessing of sustenance, and man must at all times remember that it is no more than a channel. Though his hands prepare the channel, his mind and heart must remain focused on the source of the blessing.

The chassidic masters take this a step further. In truth, they say, man should really not be allowed to work at all. For of G‑d it is said, “I fill the heavens and the earth”4 and "the whole earth is full of His glory."5 The proper response to the ever-present nature of G‑d would be to stand in absolute passivity. To do otherwise would be to be guilty of what the Talmud calls “making gestures before the king.”6 If a person standing in the presence of a king were to do anything other than devote his attention to the king, he would surely forfeit his life. So it is only because the Torah itself permits, indeed commands, “Six days shall work be done” and “the L‑rd your G‑d will bless you in all that you do,” that work is permissible and desirable. But to go beyond the level of involvement sanctioned by the Torah—beyond the “passive labor” of making a “vessel”—that would be, in the first place, to show a lack of faith that human sustenance comes from G‑d; and second, it would be “making gestures before the king”—an act of rebellion in the face of G‑d.

The Double Shabbat

This explains the phrase shabbat shabbaton—“a sabbath of sabbaths”—used by Moses in the above verse. Shabbat is not a day of rest following six days of active labor. Rather, it is a “sabbath of sabbaths,” a Shabbat following six days that are themselves “sabbaths” of sorts—days of passive labor, in which one’s work engages only one’s external self, with the true focus of one’s attention in a higher place.

Indeed, a true day of rest can only be one that follows such a week. Citing the verse, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,”7 the Sages say: “On the Shabbat, a person should regard himself as if all his work were complete.”8 This is true rest—rest in which one is utterly free of all workday concerns. If, however, during the six days a person had been preoccupied with material concerns, on the seventh day anxieties will invade him; even if his body ceases work, his mind will not be at rest. On the other hand, if he has given his work its proper place during the week, the light of Shabbat will illuminate him, and it will be shabbat shabbaton—a Shabbat twice over. For Shabbat will then permeate his whole week, and when the day itself arrives it will have a double sanctity.

The Day After Yom Kippur
This also explains the context in which Moses addresses the above verses to the assembled congregation of Israel.

Our Sages elaborate on how the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) atoned for, and rectified, the sin of the Golden Calf. Ostensibly similar (both the Calf and the Mishkan were a “consecration” of physical matter, particularly gold), the Mishkan was, in truth, the very opposite of the Calf: the Golden Calf was a deification of the material, while the Mishkan was a subjugation of the material to serve the Divine. So on the day after the first Yom Kippur, immediately following G‑d’s full forgiveness of Israel’s sin, Moses conveyed G‑d’s instructions to the people to build Him a “dwelling-place” in their midst; that very day, the people donated their gold, silver and copper to the making of the Mishkan.

First, however, Moses gathered the people of Israel and commanded them in G‑d’s name: “Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of sabbaths to G‑d . . .” This implies that, like the Mishkan, this commandment is a refutation of, and atonement for, the sin of idolatry.

Maimonides9 traces the origins of idolatry to the fact that Divine Providence is channeled through natural forces and objects. The original idolaters recognized that the sun, moon and the stars derived their power to nourish the earth from G‑d, yet they attached divine significance to them. Their error was to regard them as objects of worship, whereas they are no more than the instruments of G‑d, like "an axe in the hands of the hewer."10

In a certain sense, the excessive preoccupation with business and the material world is also a form of idolatry. For this, too, involves the error of attaching significance to what is no more than a vessel or channel of Divine blessing. The materialist’s preoccupation with material things is a form of bowing the head, of misplaced worship. Only when a person sees his workday effort for what it truly is—a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of G‑d—will his work take the passive form and the focus of his thoughts be on G‑d alone.

This is how idolatry—whether in its overt or its more subtle forms—is atoned. Six days of passive work in the sense of mental detachment and the realization that human work is only an instrument of G‑d, culminating in and inspired by a “sabbath of sabbaths” that focuses utterly on the source of our blessings—are the corrective for, and the denial of, the instincts of idolatry.