Rest for Radicals: Shabbat HaGadol as General Strike

This piece is part of a השתא הכא/Hashata Hakha, a justice-oriented Haggadah reader with contributions from members of Halachic Left, All That’s Left, and HaSmol HaEmuni, designed by Caroline Morganti, and edited by Liz Bentley, Max Buchdahl, Maya Rosen, Aron Wander, and Netanel Zellis-Paley. Jewschool is proud to partner with this publication in sharing some of the contributions. 

The Shabbat before Passover is called “Shabbat HaGadol,” which is usually translated as “The Great Sabbath.” But according to Rabbi Joseph di Trani (1568-1639, Greece), perhaps it should be translated as “The General Strike.” He teaches us something deep about the relationship between Shabbat observance and revolution, between our weekly, regular interruption of the labor cycle and the possibility of radically transforming the social order.

The background to di Trani’s interpretation lies in an odd line in the Shabbat morning prayers: 

Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion 

…when he stood before you on Mt. Sinai. 

And he brought down two tablets of stone  in his hand 

And “observing the sabbath” was written on them.

Perhaps Moses is overjoyed simply that he merits to mediate God’s revelation, but then why the specific connection to Shabbat? The medieval halakhist R. Yaakov ben Asher offers a striking answer:

When our ancestors were in Egypt, and Moses saw the weight of the enslavement which the Egyptians imposed on them, he requested from Pharaoh that Pharaoh give them one day a week for rest. And he gave it to him, and he chose the seventh day. And when they were commanded about the shabbat day, Moses rejoiced that he had chosen it. And thus: “Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion” (Tur, Orah Hayim, 281).

In this midrash, the Israelite observance of Shabbat begins with Moses bargaining for rest. Perhaps Moses is making a tactical demand, calculated to lead to a broader liberation. When we say, as we do weekly in kiddush, that we observe Shabbat “in memory of the Exodus,” we are remembering the struggle for liberation. We are insisting that, as the day off was a step toward our liberation, so too our Shabbat must be a step toward further liberation. The day off is the pathway toward the general strike.

But, as my friend Avi Garelick pointed out to me, one might read the Tur differently. Perhaps this Mosaic Shabbat is an alternative to liberation—a safety valve, negotiated between Israelite leadership and management, calculated to prevent revolt. Here is where R. di Trani enters the picture. Explaining (in his father’s name) how Shabbat HaGadol got its name, he writes:

When Israel was in Egypt, Moses asked from Pharaoh for one day of rest, and he got Shabbat. Nonetheless, when Shabbat ended, immediately, they would go out from rest and pleasure to toil and oppression, but on this Sabbath… they did not return to slavery on Saturday night. Thus, it is called, “Shabbat Hagadol,” the Great Sabbath, that is to say, the extended day of Sabbath (Tzafnat Paaneaḥ, quoted in Haggadah Shleimah, 52).

The actual Exodus would not be for several days. But that Saturday night, having rested for a full day, knowing that the liberation was coming, something broke for the Israelites, and they said, in essence: “We’re not going back to work; we are on strike.” And they stopped, and the Sabbath continued; and they were right, and that oppressive regime ended. Before God’s miraculous intervention, before the slaughter of the lamb and the painting of the doorposts, before the Angel of Death and all that jazz, something else happened: the people decided that Shabbat was no longer going to be part of the cycle of labor. Shabbat became a strike, a great strike, a general strike.

R. di Trani’s story suggests that the optimistic and cynical readings of the Tur are not as different as they might seem. Shabbat might start as a negotiated concession, intended to forestall further agitation; it nonetheless contains the seeds of a more radical transformation. His reading of how a day off becomes a general strike reminds me of the great Black Marxist thinker W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of enslaved people’s auto-liberation during the American Civil War:

As soon, however, as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods he had used in the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army… this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war. … Transforming itself suddenly from a problem of abandoned plantations and slaves captured while being used by the enemy for military purposes, the movement became a general strike against the slave system on the part of all who could find opportunity. The trickling streams of fugitives swelled to a flood. Once begun, the general strike of black and white went madly and relentlessly on like some great saga… This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. (Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 46.)

Like R. di Trani, Du Bois imagines slaves freeing themselves. Recognizing the possibilities of their historical moment, whether those present themselves via God’s plagues or, lehavdil, an invading Union army, the oppressed seize upon their pre-existing modes of refusing work, transforming them into a collective movement for liberation.  

Whether in R. di Trani’s Egypt or Du Bois’s South, the people put their bodies on the gears and made them stop. And they were right. That, in the most basic possible way, was how slavery ended. That’s what we commemorate every year on Shabbat HaGadol. And God willing, sometime soon, that will happen again–for good this time.

Raphael Magarik is an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago.


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