The idea of every seven years taking a year off from our Shabbat observance seems quite intriguing. There would be no problems with Shabbat starting too early or ending too late; sports fans would not have to miss any games that take place on Shabbat; Mock Trial could try to only make the Nationals every seven years…. Although this idea may seem somewhat bizarre, the Mechilta (quoted in Rashi Shemot 23:12) actually makes this very suggestion, proposing that Shabbat need not be observed during the Shemitah year. Although the Mechilta rejects this possibility based on the juxtaposition of Shemitah and Shabbat, which suggests that both Shemitah and Shabbat can coincide, it is perplexing why the Mechilta even made this suggestion. The Sochaczever Rebbe, in his Parsha commentary Shem Mishmuel, suggests that Shabbat can only be understood by contrasting it with six days of work. Our perception of the world is through contrasts. We perceive dark as a contrast to light, and hot as a contrast to cold. On Shabbat, we cease the work that occupies us for the rest of the week, thus demonstrating the contrast between Shabbat and the weekdays. Since Shabbat can be experienced only through its contrast to days of work, the Mechilta suggests that during the Shemitah year, when no work to the field may be done, Shabbat cannot logically be observed.
Why then does the Mechilta reject this perfectly logical suggestion and instead expect us to observe Shabbat even during the Shemitah year?
We may answer that there is a second element to Shabbat that can be perceived even without a contrast to the rest of the week. There is a positive element of Shabbat containing both positive Mitzvot and an imperative to make Shabbat a day of rest. This second component of Shabbat can be appreciated even without the contrast to the rest of the week and the cessation from work. Therefore, the Mechilta concludes that Shabbat can be understood without this contrast and must be observed even during Shemitah.
These two elements of Shabbat are contained and contrasted in the two versions of the Aseret Hadibrot. In Parshat Yitro, the Mitzvah of Shabbat is presented as “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat LeKadesho,” “Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy.” The Torah continues by linking the Shabbat observance to God’s creation of the world. Parshat Vaetchanan states the mitzvah of Shabbat with two differences. It states, “Shamor Et Yom HaShabbat LeKadesho,” “Guard the day of Sabbath to keep it holy.” The first difference is that the imperative is to guard, not remember Shabbat. Subsequently, the Torah’s command differs again when it links Shabbat observance to the Exodus of Egypt, instead of the Creation.
These two differences contrast the two elements of Shabbat. The element of Shabbat understood through contrast, through abstaining from work, refers to Parshat Vaetchanan, where the observance of Shabbat is guarding it. We must make sure the holiness of Shabbat is untainted, which we accomplish by refraining from work. This constitutes the concept of observing the 39 Melachot, the forbidden forms of constructive activity that form the negative commandments of Shabbat. However, the positive element of Shabbat, that is represented by “Zachor” in Parshat Yitro, requires us to remember Shabbat in an active sense. We are commanded to make Kiddush, eat three meals, and to be proactive about our rest and spiritual experience of Shabbat. Proper observance of Shabbat cannot be achieved by sleeping from beginning to end. We must also perform the positive component of Shabbat to make it holy. The positive element of Shabbat does not need contrast to the rest of the week to be perceived, and ultimately obligated us to observe Shabbat even during the year of Shemitah.