"Moshe Rejoiced": Shabbat, Prayer, and Intimacy with God
The rhythm of our week includes a day dedicated to feeling God’s presence differently from the rest of the week: Shabbat. A prayer recited only on Shabbat, beginning with the words Yismah Moshe (“Moshe rejoiced”), explores our connection to God and Shabbat through the lens of Moshe’s experience of God.
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei opens with Moshe gathering the people to hear God’s commandments. But what follows is not a listing of diverse rules, but rather one command only: to keep Shabbat. Why is Moshe teaching about Shabbat now, in the middle of the instructions about the mishkan?1
Indeed, this moment of instruction about Shabbat follows a description of Moshe’s intense encounter with God, in which he received the law over 40 days and nights. After God spoke to Moshe, and gave him the law (following the breaking of the first tablets), Moshe came down to speak to the people. The intensity of the encounter between God and Moshe left a mark, literally, on Moshe:
וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת מֹשֶׁה מֵהַר סִינַי וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ:
When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the Testimony in Moshe’s hand when he came down from the mountain, Moshe did not know that the skin of his face was radiant in [God]’s speaking with him.2
Moshe’s face was literally shining from the time that Moshe had spent with God. Although the people are afraid of Moshe in this state (34:30), Moshe nevertheless imparts the law that he had received from God to Israel (34:32). Yet the only law we hear explicitly is the one concerning Shabbat (35:2-3). Why is Shabbat singled out in this narrative?
While the children of Israel cannot experience the intensity that Moshe had in communing with God, perhaps there is an echo of that encounter in the gift of Shabbat. After all, Shabbat is the day set aside for us to be closer to God, removing the barriers that often exist during the week.
The connection between Moshe’s encounter with God and our experience of Shabbat appears in an unusual prayer we recite in the opening to the fourth blessing of the Amidah on Shabbat morning:
יִשְׂמַח מֹשֶׁה בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקוֹ,
כִּי עֶֽבֶד נֶאֱמָן קָרָֽאתָ לּוֹ.
כְּלִיל תִּפְאֶֽרֶת בְּרֹאשׁוֹ נָתַֽתָּ,
בְּעָמְדוֹ לְפָנֶֽיךָ עַל הַר סִינָי.
וּשְׁנֵי לוּחוֹת אֲבָנִים הוֹרִיד בְּיָדוֹ,
וְכָתוּב בָּהֶם שְׁמִירַת שַׁבָּת,
Moshe rejoiced in the gift of his portion
that You called him “trusted servant.”
A crown of glory You placed on his head
in his standing before You on Mount Sinai.
And two tablets of stone he brought down in his hand
And the observance of Shabbat was written on them.
This prayer has long been considered strange. In fact, Rashi refused to recite it because “he didn’t know what the connection was between Shabbat and Yismah Moshe”!3 Indeed, until we arrive at the last line of the poem which mentions Shabbat explicitly, this could have been an ode to the 10 Commandments more generally.4 And yet, when read in light of the verses that speak about Moshe’s intense encounter with God, followed by Moshe’s focus on the laws of Shabbat (Exodus 34:29-35:3), this poem works to connect Moshe’s experience receiving the commandments and our experience in celebrating Shabbat.
The poem begins with Moshe rejoicing over the “gift of his portion.” What is the gift that Moshe is so happy about? The next line of the poem makes this clear: that God called him a trusted servant.5 This is drawing from the narrative in which God explains to Aharon and Miriam that Moshe is the only one who can speak directly to God:
וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ־נָא דְבָרָי אִם־יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם ה' בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר־בּוֹ׃ לֹא־כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל־בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא׃ פֶּה אֶל־פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר־בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת ה' יַבִּיט…
Hear My words: When a prophet of YHVH arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My house. Mouth to mouth I speak to him, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of YHVH…
God explains that Moshe can connect with God like no one else (not even Aharon and Miriam). Our prayer is drawing on the language of Numbers 12:7:
כי עבד נאמן קראת לו
עבדי משה בכל ביתי נאמן הוא
You called him “trusted servant”
…My servant Moshe is trusted in all My house
Moshe is trusted throughout God’s proverbial house, which means Moshe has direct access to God’s presence, more than anyone else.6 This is cause for Moshe to rejoice.
Next, the prayer describes the “crown of glory” that God places on Moshe’s head at the moment that Moshe stood on Sinai. What is this crown of glory? Commentators to the Siddur make clear: this is the shining light of Exodus 34:29.7 This light is the physical representation of the uniquely close relationship Moshe had with God. The prayer calls this light a “crown of glory.”
The next part of the poem says that Moshe brought down the tablets from Sinai, drawing language from Exodus 34:29:
וּשְׁנֵי לוּחוֹת אֲבָנִים הוֹרִיד בְּיָדוֹ
וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר
And two tablets of stone he brought down in his hand
…with the two tablets of the Testimony in Moshe’s hand when he came down from the mountain
Following Moshe’s singular encounter with God, evidenced by the light that shines from his face (his “crown of glory”), Moshe brings the tablets down from the mountain.
Finally, the poem tells us that the law of keeping Shabbat was written on the tablets, just as the narrative in Exodus ends up focusing on Shabbat as the one commandment that is explicitly described from among the laws Moshe brings down. In sum, the poem recounts the transition from Exodus 34 to 35: the receiving of the law, Moshe’s shining face, and the recounting of Shabbat.
What is the connection between Moshe’s deep encounter with God and the law of Shabbat? While only Moshe can have this kind of encounter with God, the Jewish people have an opportunity for an analogous experience each week in our celebration of Shabbat. Shabbat is a day of encounter in which all who keep it have the opportunity to emerge with a version of the powerful glow that Moshe experienced after having lived on the mountain of God for forty days and nights.
My experience of God on Shabbat is more intense than on weekdays. While I don’t have a shining face from a direct encounter with God, the emotional state I can achieve on Shabbat, and the connection with God I feel on Shabbat, has the potential to be quite deep. As R. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “[T]he seventh day is…a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine.”8 To me, this recalls the vision of Yehezkel (46:1), in which the door to the inner court of the Sanctuary is closed six days of the week, but open on Shabbat. On Shabbat, we have more access to God’s presence.
This prayer, then, is not just an ode to the special connection between God and Moshe; it is also a nod to the ways in which we can connect intensely with God’s presence through the day of Shabbat. In this reading, the poem becomes a powerful argument that Shabbat morning be considered as an opportunity, a time when the experience of prayer is not used to put forward requests or to acknowledge moral or spiritual shortcomings, but rather to remind ourselves about the opportunity to commune with God in some analog to the intimacy Israel’s greatest prophet once knew with the God of Israel.
3 Sefer Ha-Manhig, Hilkhot Shabbat #20, p. 150. Instead, Rashi would recite a prayer that began “אתה בחרתנו - You have chosen us,” which is how we open the fourth blessing of the Amidah on festivals. See further Naphtali Wieder, “Yismah Moshe: Hitnagdut Ve-Senegoreha,” in Hitgabshut Nusah Ha-Tefillah Ba-Mizraḥ U-Ba-Maarav (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1998), vol.1, pp. 295–322. See also my essay “Why is Moses so Happy? Intimacy with God and Shabbat” in V’Shamru, eds. David Birnbaum and Martin Cohen (New York: Mesorah Matrix, 2019), pp. 235-245. See also my teaching on this prayer on the Hadar website.
4 In fact, Aharon Mirsky, building off work of Menahem Zulay, theorized that this was the remnant of a longer acrostic poem recited specifically for Parashat Yitro, in which the 10 Commandments were given. See Aharon Mirsky, Ha-Piyyut (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), p. 88.
6 On Berakhot 34b, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai contrasts his status before God with Hanina ben Dosa’s: “הוּא דּוֹמֶה כְּעֶבֶד לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַאֲנִי דּוֹמֶה כְּשַׂר לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ - he is similar to a servant before the King, while I am similar to a minister before the King.” As Rashi explains, the point is that the servant can “נכנס ויוצא שלא ברשות- enter and leave without permission,” which is not true even of the minister.
7 See R. Eliezer bar Natan (12th c.) in Siddur Torat Hayyim, p. 187. See also Rokei’ah’s Commentary to the Siddur, ed. Hershler, p. 530. Talmud Bavli Beitzah 16a calls the shining face of Moshe a gift that God gave him. Indeed, it is possible that this term is related to the fact that the term “ויתן - he gave,” which has the same root as “מתנה - gift,” only comes twice in connection to Moshe: once concerning the law in general (Exodus 31:18), and once concerning the veil that would cover Moshe’s shining face (34:33).
8 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, Noonday Press, 1993), p. 16. See also Isaiah Tishby, Mishnat Ha-Zohar (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1961), vol. 2, pp. 481-507 and Moshe Hallamish, Hanhagot Kabaliyot Be-Shabbat (Jerusalem: Orhot, 2016), p. 28; Ha-Kuzari 2:50.