I think the primary essence of Shabbos is to be derived from the word l’kadsho, “to sanctify it.” This does not in any way mean to belittle the importance of zachor, “remember,” the Shabbos. Clearly, one who does not remember, who does not observe Shabbos according to halachah, can hardly sanctify it. The suggestion, however, is that Shabbos observance without focusing on its sanctity, by concentrating on the positive aspects of rest, and how this time should be spent spiritually elevating ourselves, undermines the essence of Shabbos. Shabbos is a day of elevation, of spiritual growth, which is achieved through the medium of rest. We have the opportunity to rest our bodies, but, more importantly, our minds.
Horav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zl, was a Torah giant whose sage advice in all areas of concern to Klal Yisrael was sought after and followed. This was especially true concerning the area of kiruv rechokim, Jewish outreach to the unaffiliated. A seasoned kiruv professional who worked for Peylim reminisced about the numerous times that he met with this slight, unassuming gadol, a quiet Torah giant whose love for Torah and Klal Yisrael motivated him to give of his precious time toward enhancing the lofty work of Jewish outreach. He responded to the halachic queries of baalei teshuvah and advised them concerning their attempt to navigate the transition between a lack of Jewish practice to a committed life of Torah and mitzvos. He was sensitive to the fears and practical challenges confronting the penitent, and he guided the professionals about how to best reach these once alienated Jews.
“From where does one begin?” was one of the most pressing questions that occupied everyone’s mind. To demand complete mitzvah observance without compromise would quite possibly sink the ship in port. The overwhelming responsibilities, obligations and lifestyle changes necessary to become wholly observant could, for the most part, be a game changer and should be done slowly. One takes tiny steps, and, every so often, he stops to rest. The goal may be a long way off, but in this way, he has the possibility of achieving his goal.
Rav Shteinman replied, “Three mitzvos and one t’nai, stipulation: Tefillin, Tzitzis, Shabbos and (the t’nai) kashrus, Jewish dietary laws.” He explained that tefillin is a powerful mitzvah which can be fulfilled in just a few minutes; it places no heavy demands on one’s time. Tzitzis is a mitzvah that one fulfills every minute that he wears the tallis katan. It makes no public demands on him. He can put it on under his shirt, and no one need be aware. Third is Shabbos observance. Here, Rav Shteinman qualified his words. It is not only about observance. If a hopeful baal teshuvah is given a list of “do nots,” the negative overload will be too much. He must not think that Judaism is the religion of “no.” He must explore the positive aspects of Shabbos, for which shul attendance is a prerequisite. Yes, encourage him to attend services, to listen and join in the singing and chanting of the tunes, to observe firsthand how a Jew davens to Hashem, and the meaning of talking to Hashem.
A baal teshuva needs to experience the beauty and sanctity of Shabbos in order to appreciate the prohibitive commandments connected to observance. Only when he sees and experiences the majesty and sanctity of Shabbos, the l’kadsho, can he later go on to accept the zachor and become a full-fledged Shabbos observer. One can better concentrate on the sur mei’ra, turn from evil, after he has tasted the asei tov, do good.
The mitzvah itself will protect the individual who is sincere in his mitzvah observance. Chazal (Pesachim 8a) state, Shluchei mitzvah einan nizakim, “An emissary dispatched to do a mitzvah will not be harmed.” When, and under which circumstances this applies, is not our present focus. Rather, the very idea that a mitzvah protects suggests that, when we perform a mitzvah, we connect with Hashem, Who sees to it that no negativity should surface as a result of the mitzvah. This serves as a preface to a story that Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, a.h. related, which incidentally pertains to Shabbos.
A young woman became a baalas teshuvah, returned to religious observance, despite having been raised totally assimilated. She had been estranged from Torah life and mitzvah observance. It was all foreign to her. Bit by bit, ever so slowly, she felt comfortable with observance, except for one thing. Having smoked cigarettes her entire adult life, she just found it nearly impossible to give up smoking on Shabbos. She made the attempt a number of times. Despite her determination to succeed, however, she always fell short. She even became ill as a result of abstaining from cigarettes.
The rabbanim that were involved in her return to observance turned to Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zl, wondering if he would render a halachic decision/dispensation concerning her problem. Rav Elyashiv’s immediate response was, “Check her lineage, I suspect that she is not Jewish.” The rabbanim were taken aback by this strange reply, but, when the gadol ha’dor, preeminent Torah giant of the generation, speaks, one listens. They investigated and, after a complete background check, it was discovered that, indeed, her mother was not Jewish. They immediately arranged for her conversion to Judaism, to which she readily agreed. All of a sudden, her addiction to smoking on Shabbos ceased. Obviously, everyone involved sought an explanation. Rav Elyashiv explained that Chazal teach that it is prohibited for a non-Jew to observe Shabbos. This woman was wholly sincere in her desire to serve Hashem. As a result, the Almighty created a situation whereby she would be unable to give up smoking, thus preventing her from transgressing His will.