V’Shamru: Mo’ed and Meaning, Parashat Emor

Whenever I think of Noah Coplon years from now, I will have so many wonderful memories – his bris, which I officiated at with Rabbi Nyer thirteen years ago, his rat tail, and the fact that when I asked him what prayer he needed to have on the Friday night before his Bar Mitzvah, he said, “V’Shamru.”

Noah has always loved jumping up for V’Shamru, ever since he got too big to be lifted in the air.  The smile on his face as he leaves his seat, for destinations unknown in our sanctuary, gives me great joy. It gives a rabbi satisfaction to see such enthusiasm for any prayer, and particularly to witness the familiar experience of a congregation sharing a minhag/treasured custom with one another.  Noah has belonged to TBS since before he was born.  Wherever Noah will pray in the future, I know that the memories of our V’Shamru will stay a part of his life forever.

The melody we sing for V’shamru is the one that I sang as a child — so it is quite old. The V’Shamru prayer, with a variety of melodies, is recited in many congregations on Friday evening between the blessing of redemption–the Mi Chamocha– and the Tefillah–the Avot v’Imahot.  It is also traditionally said on Shabbat morning in the morning Tefillah, and before the Saturday morning Kiddush in the traditional liturgy.

You might be surprised to know that V’Shamru is not sung everywhere during the Sabbath service, as there is quite a debate as to whether it is considered an interruption between the Geulah blessing of redemption (ie. Mi Chamocha) and the Tefillah. For those congregations that do include V’Shamru, it is done with the blessing of rabbinic authorities who say that it is an extension of the Mi Chamocha, a prolonged geulahbecause the Sabbath is our redemption.  That reasoning is really a stretch of logic to include a prayer that people really want to say, which has many melodies that Jews are very attached to, especially here in America.

It is interesting to note that according to one of my Orthodox sources, many synagogues in Israel do not say the V’Shamru, because the Vilna Gaon (who lived in the second half of the 18th century and was a very famous and important rabbinic authority) objected to reciting it and they follow his ruling.

So we discover, in researching the history and customs of singing V’shamru at services, that Jewish tradition varies greatly from community to community and rabbi to rabbi.

But, don’t try to look the prayer and its practice up in either version of the Encyclopedia Judaica.  It’s not there.  How could it not be included in a set of volumes that take up half of our library?  Because, for us V’Shamru is really important and for many, based on rabbinic custom and interpretation, it was not.

I decided to focus on this prayer we love this Shabbat, because this week’s Torah portion, Emor, from Leviticus, chapters 21-24, establishes the Jewish calendar of “fixed times” set out by God.  A “fixed time” is called a “mo’ed.”  Setting fixed times establishes the Jewish calendar in our portion.  These are God’s fixed times, so we are commanded to live on God’s calendar.

Leviticus Chapter 23 begins with the very first fixed time:

“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion.  You shall do no work, it shall be a Sabbath of the Eternal throughout your settlements.”

Leviticus commands us to keep the Sabbath, but doesn’t give us a reason.  The creation story, in Genesis 2:1 establishes the first Shabbat as the seventh day that God stopped creating. God then blesses the day and makes it holy.  Why? Because, God stopped working.  There is no command for us to keep Shabbat in the future or for us to stop working. The first Shabbat was for God.

Then, in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we get the fourth commandment. We are commanded to “Remember- Zachor” the Sabbath day, because that is the day God rested.   In the second version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, we are commanded to “Observe – Shamor” the seventh day and keep it holy, because we were slaves in Egypt, and God freed us.  Now, Shabbat is about us and for us.

Both of these commands and the reasons they give for us to keep Shabbat are then woven into the Kiddush, in which we chant every Shabbat: “zikaron l’maasei B’reishit” – “to REMEMBER the creation of Genesis,” and then a bit later “zaychair l’tziyat Mitzrayim”—to remember the exodus from Egypt.  And we have two candles on Shabbat – one to Observe and the other to Remember.

But, it is not until Exodus 31 that we get the full reason for keeping the Sabbath.  It is not the punishment of death in 31:14 for profaning the Sabbath, or being excommunicated from the Jewish people for working on the Sabbath in the same line.  God tells us that Shabbat is a SIGN (Ot hi), that God consecrated us; that God made us holy.  In Exodus 31:16 and 17, our V’Shamru prayer, we are COMMANDED:

“The people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, OBSERVING the Sabbath in every generation, as a COVENANT for all time.  It is a sign forever, between me and the people of Israel, for in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and on the seventh day God “shavat – stopped working and rested” and was vayinafash/refreshed.”

The reason we celebrate the Sabbath with this passage from Exodus, the V’Shamru, and not the fourth Commandment from the Ten Commandments was that early in our history, in Temple times, there were those fringe sects that were misleading the people teaching that all the Torah was contained in the Ten Commandments and so the rest of the Torah wasn’t necesssary.  That is when our sages took the Ten Commandments out of daily worship and replaced it with passages and prooftexts that were good substitutes, such as Exodus 31.**

But, the debate as to whether and when V’Shamru would be inserted in the liturgy continued over time.  N’tiv Binah: The Sabbath Service by B.S. Jacobson, published in Tel Aviv in 1981, is the only thorough accounting of the debate in its section entitled:


I don’t think any of us can imagine services without V’Shamru, but many great rabbis could.* Commentators continued the debate throughout the centuries. The original Lubavitcher rebbe, Reb Shneur Zalman of Ladi, admits that the wording of the law of the Shulchan Arukh would indicate that it shouldn’t be said. BUT, he actually gives reasoning to continue the practice and say it, with footnotes in future Lubavitch prayerbooks that permit you to refrain if that is your custom.  The people wanted it and some rabbis found a way to include it.

What I found most interesting are the laws that derive from the V’shamru itself, as established in the Talmud (p. 86 N’tiv Binah).

  • You may save a life on Shabbat – You must preserve a life on one Shabbat so that life may be observed for many Shabbatot in the future.
  • We do not wear tefillin on Shabbat, because Shabbat, itself, is the sign (ot hi) to observe God’s Torah, so we don’t need any other reminder on the Sabbath.
  • We must have a bris on Shabbat, because like Shabbat, the circumcision is a sign for all time (ot hi l’olam).

My favorite interpretation of observing the mitzvah of Shabbat as commanded in the V’Shamru is given by Jacobson, quoting the Mechilta’s Rabbi Eliezer ben Perata:

“The commandment ordaining the Sabbath differs from all other mitzvot, in that all the others are clearly distinguishable, for instance: tzitzit, tefillin, shofar, sukkah, lulav. Even when their respective mitzvot are not being performed, their nature is clearly evident, since nothing comparable to them exists among other peoples.  (You can see the object and do the mitzvah…easy.)

Not so the mitzvah of Shabbat.  Unless one actually observes it, there is nothing to show that the day is Shabbat, since in its nature this day is no different from any other. Hence its existence is ONLY distinguishable insofar as it is observed and preserved.  That is why to observe Shabbat is equivalent to “making’ it, and whoever observes the Sabbath is regarded as having made it.” 

I suppose that is why the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 1.5) teaches, “Shabbat is equivalent in importance to all the rest of the Torah.” 

The Sabbath observer reciting the V’Shamru, according to both of these sources is not only keeping the whole Torah by doing so, but actually creating/making Shabbat as God made Shabbat. 

V’Shamru gets recited BECAUSE it reminds us that we become divine when we SHAMOR/Protect, guard, keep, observe and preserve the Sabbath as a covenant for all time. The Sabbath is what enables us to come closest to God and the World to Come.

I find all of this empowering and amazing.  Something happens to your soul, your NEFESH when Shabbat is a real activity and you make time for a Mo’ed, a set time by God, in your life.  Like God, your soul=your NEFESH is refreshed=VAYINAFASH.

Shabbat has the potential to transform us from stressed out organic machines into vessels of peace and holiness.  That is nothing short of AMAZING!

The V’Shamru teaches  us about a Shabbat given meaning when you are standing beside your child, your friend, your loved one, your fellow congregant, beaming as you both recognize your bond, your identity and your spiritual fulfillment in setting aside a time for prayer and community.

Noah grew up with this commandment in his heart, singing V’shamru with joy, as he regularly has attended services with his parents and his TBS friends.  We, children of Israel, must not just remember.. “Hey, its Friday night!”  We must observe the Shabbat, creating spiritual rest for ourselves.  And around here, we do that by singing V’Shamru with gusto!

It is our obligation to stand watch over the fixed times, the moadim, as ohrna – “guardians” of the Torah and Judaism… guardians of our Jewish galaxy. And that is why we say V’Shamru every Friday night as Reform Jews around the globe.

Together may we observe and remember our heritage of Shabbat, as God so generously commanded us.  For when we do, our souls are recharged and our lives become linked with the divine.

So, we will keep singing V’Shamru, sometimes jumping up and down with Shabbat joy, and other sometimes just savoring its words and their amazing power.  Shabbat Shalom.

* It begins with the earliest sources from the prayerbooks of Rabbis Amram and Saadia Gaon, which do not have V’Shamru in the Friday night service.  The Rokeach says you can say the first line in an undertone.  Abudraham says that we say it after Mi Chamocha, because any Jew who keeps the Sabbath is immediately redeemed.  The Tur has Exodus 31:16 & 17 being said, but the Shulchan Arukh, which comes after it and becomes the book of Jewish law, omits it completely.

**       The exact phrase ktrah hbc urnau – V’shamru B’nai Yisrael, appears only one other time in the Torah in Numbers 9:19 – when the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days ktrah hbc urnau V’shamru B’nai Yisrael, the Israelites observed God’s mandate and did not journey on.