The Gift of Shabbat as the Trace of God’s Caring Hand on our Faces

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This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34), concludes with a famously enigmatic series of vignettes and laws with a powerful underlying theme: while our relationship with God will remain ever close, we can never enjoy the level of confidence in that relationship that we feel when we relate to another human face-to-face.

To be sure, Moses apparently succeeds in convincing God to have His “face go” with Israel (33:12-17). Moreover, “God spoke to Moses, face to face, just as a man will speak to his fellow” (33:11). God also “passes over [Moses’s] face” (34:6) in revealing His attributes of mercy. And the people too would be part of this face-to-face relationship, as they are enjoined to make “their faces visible” to “God’s face” on the three pilgrimage festivals (34: 23-4).

And yet. We also learn that even when God speaks with us face-to-face; even when He is with us; even when He “knows (us) by name” (33:17); even when He sees our faces; and even when He communes with us with such extended intimacy that it makes a visible impression on our own faces (34:28-35); it is nonetheless the case that we “may (not) see [His] face [for] no human can see [Him] and live” (33:20, 23).

The asymmetry in this close relationship is thus quite stark and therefore challenging. God’s relationship with Israel would never be knowable with certainty but only indirectly inferred from the way that Israel would be “distinguished from all other nations” (33:16). Indeed, even if God would always remain covenantally bound not just to “go with” Israel but to do “wonders” on their behalf that will appear “awesome to the people” (34:10), there would also be times, as He later informs Moses before his death, when Israel would be punished with hester panim – periods where God would “hide (His) face” from Israel, causing them to suffer greatly, because Israel had betrayed the covenant. This cycle would reinforce itself as the people respond to their troubles by concluding that “our God is not with us,” leading them to “turn [their faces] towards” other gods, and as God responds by further turning His face away from Israel (Deuteronomy 31:16-18).

Thus, whereas on the one hand, the Torah promises us as close a relationship with God as is humanly possible, it is also clear that this possibility is quite limited, such that distance is fundamental to our relationship with Him. We are therefore warned in advance that this estrangement is to be expected and armed with cultural tools (the song of Haazinu in particular; Deuteronomy 31:19-32:47) for addressing it. This sense of distance and even estrangement is thus something we must all learn to deal with, especially during moments of trouble and crisis.

How then are to feel connected to a divine partner who might at best be invisibly looking out for us but might in fact have turned away? A remarkably inspiring answer emerges from a careful reading of a puzzling and disturbing Talmudic sugya (pericope) that discusses two parts of this week’s Torah portion, one that seems to have nothing to do with face-to-face relationships but is enigmatically interpreted in this fashion by the Talmudic sages. The first part of the sugya discusses God’s gift of the Shabbat to Israel (Exodus 31:12-17), and the second describes how Moses’s encounter with God endowed him with a divine glow that made it so that the people could not even look upon his face unless it was veiled (34:28-35). At first blush, this sugya is legalistic, weakly sourced, and alienating in its logic and practical significance. Yet we will see that it carries a profound theological message drawn from a deep engagement with Exodus’s nuanced account of Israel’s encounter with God.

Animating Questions

Let us begin by reading the first part of the two-part Talmudic sugya, which itself may be divided into three parts:

1a. And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: One who gives a gift to another must inform him. As it is stated: “to know that I am God Who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).

1b. This was also taught in a baraita: “‘For I am God Who sanctifies you,” (Exodus 31:13) the Holy One, Blessed be He was saying to Moses: I have a good gift in My treasure house and Shabbat is its name, and I seek to give it to Israel. Go inform them. From here Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: One who gives bread to a child needs to inform his mother.

1c. What should he do? Abaye said: He should smear him with oil or place blue shadow around his eye. And now that we are concerned about witchcraft, what should one do? Rav Pappa said: He should smear him with (food of) the same type [min].[1] (Shabbat 10b)

An immediate question should strike the reader: Doesn’t Rav’s principle, that one should notify a gift recipient of a gift, contradict the famous Maimonidean principle (which has Talmudic roots) that the highest form of charity is double-blind? Tosafot (ad loc.) provides a compelling answer: Rav’s principle is referring specifically to a gift given “out of love” because in such cases “the recipient is not ashamed.”

The next questions that come to mind pertain to the concrete application of Rav’s principle offered by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and to the practical advice on fulfilling it provided by Abaye and Rav Pappa. In short, not only does the example of an adult feeding other parents’ children seem contrived, so do the implied problems solved by the advice. Of the many examples of gift-giving, why focus on this one? And if the Talmud had not asked how the mother is to be informed, would this question have occurred to us? Very likely, we would simply have assumed that the bread-feeder would tell the mother directly at their next opportunity. After all, situations where the bread-giver does not expect to see the mother again seem rather far-fetched; do we really need guidance on how to deal with them? Finally, would we not exhaust other approaches before resorting to face-smearing? For example, if the child is too young to faithfully relay the message verbally, we might write a note and put it in the child’s pocket or attach it to their body. The logic underlying this sugya seems odd and disturbing, not least because we have somehow traveled in a few sentences from the beautiful imagery of the Shabbat as a divine gift given out of love to the distortion of a child’s face for questionable reasons.

The Strength of a Weak Scriptural Anchor

As a first step towards resolving the foregoing questions, let us first consider the scriptural support for Rav’s principle. As is always the case for midrashic exegesis, it is important not to focus only on the specific words that are quoted but also on the larger verse (Exodus 31:13) and its context. When we do so, we find two reasons to regard the verse adduced to support the principle as providing strong scriptural support, but also two reasons to regard this support as weak. But such weaknesses will point us towards an even stronger scriptural anchor[2] that helps clarify the scriptural foundations for our sugya and begins to clarify its larger message.

The first strength of this scriptural anchor derives from the recognition that this verse and its predecessor have an unusual (though not unique; see Numbers 15:37-38 or Leviticus 1:1-2) “double introduction” that seems to accentuate the importance of making sure Israel receives this particular message from God. In particular, the beginning of Exodus 31:13—”Speak to the people of Israel saying”—seems extraneous given that the prior verse is “And the Lord said to Moses as follows,” and all such divine instructions were eventually related to the people. As R. David Zvi Hoffmann notes, the Rabbinic Sages commonly saw such double-introductions as scriptural anchors for “halakhic traditions.”[3] In particular, our sugya seems to suggest that the double introduction hints at the principle that we should make special efforts (to go out of their way “to inform him”) to ensure that gift recipients appreciate the identity of their benefactors.

The second strength of the scriptural anchor stems from the central idea of the verse: that Shabbat observance is a sign that imparts knowledge to a gift recipient (Israel) about its relationship with the gift giver (God). No other commandment in the Torah is described as this verse describes Shabbat observance—as a “sign between” God and Israel “through the generations” that imparts “knowledge” of God as Israel’s source of sanctification. This language is quoted twice by Ezekiel (chapter 20) in a prophecy on the importance of Shabbat observance, but appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. To be sure, the commandment to dwell in sukkot (Leviticus 23:43) is presented as important “so that your generations know” that God is Israel’s benefactor. But two considerations make Exodus 31:13 a better scriptural anchor for Rav’s principle: (a) it is unique in discussing a commandment as a “sign”; (b) it discusses God’s benefaction in personal terms, as part of an ongoing relationship beginning at the time of benefaction (“between me and you, for your generations, that I sanctify you”), rather than (in the case of Sukkot) something described in impersonal terms, whereby later generations would learn about God’s role in an earlier moment to their forebears (“I housed them in sukkot when I took them out of Egypt”). Observe as well that these themes permeate the pericope of Exodus 31:12-17, climaxing with the famous words of the Ve-Shamru, which depict a future vision of Israel’s observance of the Shabbat; introduces the notion of the Shabbat as covenantal; and elucidates another aspect of Shabbat as a sign, that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

But while Exodus 31:13 has some strength as a scriptural anchor, it also has two critical weaknesses: (a) It does not actually refer to gifts or giving; and (b) Israel was already aware of the Shabbat and would already have known that God had given it to them. The latter issue is the most glaring. Not only does Exodus 31 appear some time after the presentation of Shabbat as the fourth of ten divine “sayings” at Sinai (Exodus 20), it also appears after Israel’s first Shabbat, which was introduced via the miracles of the manna (Exodus 16).

Indeed, a review of the story of the first Shabbat uncovers a verse—16:29—that seems like a much stronger scriptural anchor. In fact, it is in reaction to this verse that another midrashLekah Tov (ad loc.) – reports the very same narrative expansion that appears in our sugya (God had told Moses that “I have a good gift in My treasure house and Shabbat is its name, and I seek to give it to Israel. Go inform them.”). Two other midrashim (Yalkut Shimoni 261 and Midrash Tehillim 92) offer the related interpretation of this verse when they describe God as enjoining Israel to notice that Shabbat is (like) a diamond.

This verse, which I analyzed in detail in a Lehrhaus essay last year,[4] appears several verses after the people are startled to discover they have collected a double portion of manna on the sixth day. When the nesiim (“princes”) report this anomaly to Moses, he tells them “this is in accord with what God has related, ‘Tomorrow will be shabbaton, a holy Sabbath dedicated to God.’” They are then instructed to tell the people to prepare food for the Shabbat from this double portion. They are also told to expect two miracles: that manna left over for Saturday would be edible (whereas it otherwise rotted overnight); and that manna would not fall on Saturdays. God then becomes irate when “some of the people” go out to collect manna on Shabbat anyway (only to verify it had not fallen), asking Moses, “Until when will you refrain from keeping my commandments and instructions?” Verse 16:29 is a continuation of God’s words to Moses:

Observe that it is God who has given you the Shabbat… Dwell, each man, under it. No man should leave his place on the seventh day.

The story then climaxes with the next verse, which is a beautifully terse summary of Israel’s observance of their first Shabbat, one that is the most perfect fulfillment of humankind emulating God (b-tzelem Elokim, or imitatio Dei; cf. Genesis 2:2)[5]: “And the people sabbathed on the seventh day.”

Observe now why 16:29 is a stronger scriptural anchor than 31:13. Not only does 16:29 pertain to Israel’s very first Shabbat, it explicitly describes God as emphasizing that Moses must convey the knowledge it is God who has “given” Israel the Shabbat. Moreover, this is not any old gift. As I discussed in last year’s essay, the imagery with which this verse describes the gift – dwell, each man, under it – evokes, due to its association with the famous line “each man [should] dwell under his vineyard and his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5; Micah 4:4), the biblical paradigm for the good life, where a benevolent king provides peace and prosperity to every member of his realm. Finally, 16:29 appears to be the only biblical verse that describes a benefactor making special efforts to ensure that a beneficiary knows the benefactor’s identity. And this benefactor is none other than God. It would be hard to find a more fitting scriptural anchor for Rav’s principle!

It may seem surprising that our sugya offers a weaker scriptural anchor than it could have provided. In fact, this seems to be a common feature of midrashic exegesis. The underlying rationale (as with the larger midrashic practice of alluding to the scriptural anchoring for its teachings without necessarily making them explicit)[6] seems to be that an obviously weak scriptural anchor prompts the reader to read scripture carefully and consider how a range of scriptural material works together to support the principle or lesson under discussion.

A case where this strategy is a bit more explicit appears later on the same page as our sugya, in another of the series of sugyot that convey principles attributed to Rav by Rava bar Meḥasseya in the name of Rav Ḥama bar Gurya.[7] This latter sugya concerns the following principle: One should endeavor to settle in a city that was established recently (“near” in time) because it is less likely to be steeped in sin. The scriptural anchor is Genesis 19:20, in which Lot argues that the angels should allow him to resettle in “nearby” Zoar because it is “pathetic” (mitz’ar). The sugya then tries to address the obvious weaknesses with this scriptural anchor: neither sinfulness nor Zoar’s age is explicitly mentioned. These exegetical efforts are productive in that they identify oddities in Lot’s language that beg explanation and are consistent with the idea that Zoar is new and relatively sinless. But this exegesis is still a stretch. What is more, it is not necessary: Much stronger evidence for Zoar’s relative youth is its absence in the first listing of the cities of the plain in Genesis 10:19 (with Lasha’ mentioned in its stead) and the fact that Zoar is mentioned with an alternate name (Bela’) in the prior listing of these cities (14:2). And there is also stronger evidence for Zoar’s lack of sin: It is explicitly contrasted with sinful Sodom when Lot first surveys the cities of the plain (13:10-13).

Yet while it is puzzling at first blush, citation of the weaker scriptural anchor is productive. In particular, had the stronger scriptural anchor been adduced, we likely would not have read any of the verses as carefully as we do when we are diverted to the weaker scriptural anchor. When we grapple with the weak anchor and then seek out and read the stronger anchors, we find that the stronger scriptural anchor has weaknesses too, and that the weaker scriptural anchor is helpful in shoring up such weaknesses. In particular, since it is possible that Zoar’s tenuous position is not because of its relative youth, it is reassuring that (as this sugya notes) Lot thinks the angels are unaware of it.

Similarly, our sugya seems to be hinting that the weaker scriptural anchor for Rav’s principle addresses an important weakness in the stronger scriptural anchor. The issue is that Exodus 16:28 states “And God said to Moses” but it doesn’t include the usual “as follows.” This is especially odd because the message is in the second person, plural. By directing us to the weaker scriptural anchor, our sugya seems to be suggesting that it was not until Moses was communing with God at Sinai that God told Moses to deliver the message. Neatly, the redundant “as follows” of 31:12-13 completes the missing “as follows” of 16:29. And the gift-giving act now emerges as a process, one that begins at the manna and is completed at Sinai. Moreover, by locating the climax of this gift-giving process as part of Moses’s communion with God on Sinai, our sugya also links this process with the theme with which we began our essay, our struggle to relate to God despite not being able to see His face.

Do we Know when our Face Glows?

Let us then continue building towards a resolution of our questions, by introducing the second part of our sugya, where this theme is engaged explicitly:

2a. Is that so? Didn’t Rav Ḥama bar Ḥanina say: One who gives a gift to his friend need not inform him, as it is stated: “And Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone when He spoke with him” (Exodus 34:29). (This is) not difficult. This (principle) refers to a matter that is likely to be revealed. This (principle) refers to a matter that is not likely to be revealed.

2b. Wasn’t Shabbat likely to be revealed? (Yes, but) the giving of its reward was not likely to be revealed.

Each idea introduced in subsections 2a and 2b adds an important piece to our puzzle. Subsection 2b answers a question one might ask about the process of gift-giving we have just surfaced with our sugya’s help: Even if Moses had not related God’s message about the Shabbat until he descended from Sinai, why did they need to learn more about the Shabbat at this point? They had already observed at least eight shabbatot! Our sugya’s answer: They had yet to learn the reward for Shabbat observance. Our sugya does not explicitly identify that reward, but its scriptural anchor suggests to us what it is: knowledge that God is responsible for sanctifying Israel as part of an ongoing relationship with us.[8] Given how God seems absent from our lives when times are tough, such knowledge seems quite valuable indeed.

Now observe how subsection 2a helps us resolve our questions about our sugya’s seemingly contrived application and advice on how to fulfill Rav’s principle. Consider first how Moses figures out that his face was glowing. Apparently, the glow was not visible to him. Of course, he had no mirror nor access to a pool of water, nor could he avail himself of Zoom “self-view.” The world’s most modest man (Numbers 12:3) was no Narcissus. But he knew he had just been communing with God. So as soon as the people told him that his face was aglow, he understood who his benefactor was.

And now consider the contrived application of Rav’s principle and the strange scenarios depicted for realizing this application, in light of what we have learned about Moses’s glowing face and the process by which God gave the Shabbat to Israel. Just as in the story of Moses, the imagined scenarios are about a person whose face is giving off an apparently unmistakable sign that a particular agent gave them a gift. And just as with the giving of the Shabbat, the gift comes in the form of bread.

We are now beginning to appreciate that the gift-giving adult is a mashal, an allegory. But what is it referring to (the nimshal), and what is it meant to teach us?

Of the two particular forms of smearing, Rav Pappa’s advice is the easiest to decipher. Especially once we recognize the implicit significance of 16:29, it appears that he is referencing the gift of the Shabbat of the manna. Accordingly, the bread-giver is instructed to smear the same “type” of food, using the word “min” which hints at “mann,” manna. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the first Shabbat was when parents were compelled to learn to be patient as families were fed by their stores of God’s manna and were unable to gather new food for their families. The text reports that it was difficult for some to refrain from replenishing their stock, to appreciate that they had been given a great gift.[9] The mother in our sugya thus apparently stands for the people of Israel after they have come to appreciate the meaning of the Shabbat, and how it ultimately sustains Israel despite its seemingly forbidding restrictions on providing for one’s family. While this was harder to appreciate at first, it has become clearer over the course of “your generations” (31:13).

The meaning of the blue eye shadow seems more obscure at first, but it is not once we read a sugya in Kiddushin 73a-b, which is the only other occasion in the Talmud that mentions a parent smearing this balm on a child’s face.[10] Strikingly, it is there referenced as one of the few telltale signs—in addition to circumcision— that a baby has not been abandoned by his parents. Thus both min and blue eye makeup are signs of covenantal, parental love.

Overall then, our sugya is offering a beautiful analogy. It is suggesting that God’s gift of the Shabbat to Israel is akin to an adult who feeds a child in such a distinctive manner that the child’s mere appearance unwittingly reassures their mother that the child has a munificent benefactor, one who regards the child and mother as special, and who continues to care for them. It certainly is a treasure for the generations of the child’s family that the benefactor continues to “sanctify” them even when He seems absent.

It may seem strange for our pre-Shabbat ancestors to be cast in the role of child and for later generations to be cast as the mother. But this role reversal should make sense to us in light of the naïveté we ascribe to ourselves when considering our worldview prior to the coronavirus pandemic (or as any generation does when it considers its outlook on life before a major disruption that transforms its sense of the range of possible human experience): in our innocence, we did not appreciate the gifts they/we had been given. Indeed, many parents during the pandemic found themselves encouraging their children, praising them for being more worldly-wise than we ourselves had been prior to the pandemic. Likewise, our pre-Sinai forebears were like children who must be trained to observe the Shabbat before they could treasure it (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). How else to explain that some went out to collect manna when they could have been relaxing and enjoying the bounty they had received or that Moses and then God needed to prod them to relax and enjoy the Shabbat?[11] The double-portion of the manna was essentially forced upon them, smeared on their faces so to speak, and the meaning of this gift is conveyed to us by the inter-generational chain of Shabbat observance that resulted from this smearing.


While our sugya is enigmatic and troubling at first blush, it contains within it a profoundly inspiring answer to the challenge of how we can relate to God, and even have some degree of confidence that He is looking out for us, even though we will never be able to see Him directly and we will experience periods that seem consistent with His warning that He will turn His face from us.[12]

To finish fleshing out this message, let us return to the bread-giver analogy and observe that the only reason the bread-giver would not be able to inform the mother directly is if they expect to exit the scene before she appears. The implication is terrifying at first blush: Our sugya is suggesting that God intervened in history for a moment– to redeem Israel and provide this gift– but then withdrew. God’s face would henceforth be hidden.

But the analogy is also founded on another premise: that the bread-giver is confident their strategy will work and that it is better than alternative strategies. One might think that a verbal message or even a note– an oral or written “Torah” so to speak– would be sufficient. But especially if the child is young and irresponsible, the message may get garbled or lost. Twin features of the bread-giver’s strategy address this problem. First, like Moses, the child is unaware of the sign their face is giving off. And (since the child might otherwise rub it off) this lack of awareness paradoxically means the message will be transmitted with greater fidelity. Second, the mother is somehow able to identify the benefactor’s identity from the smearing just as she might were the bread-giver to write their name on the child’s face. Similarly, and as Exodus 31:13 emphasizes, the meaning of the Shabbat is indelibly inscribed into our actions regardless of our awareness of such meaning. It is is our unbroken “observance” of Shabbat (shemirat shabbat) that constitutes the knowledge “sign” (ot hi),[13] the treasured message that God took care of our ancestors when they could neither take care of themselves nor appreciate God’s loving gift, to serve the foundation of an eternal covenant with us.

Finally, for the bread-giver to be confident the mother gets the message, they must be sure nothing will happen to the child before the mother shows up. Perhaps it is because the benefactor is hiding behind a tree and looking out to make sure nothing happens to the child before the mother arrives, which she surely will. They apparently have their reasons for hanging back; perhaps they fear that if they did not, the mother and child would become overly dependent on them. Whatever their reasons, it is reassuring that the bread-giver is so confident that the child will reach the mother and that she will understand who is caring for her and her child. May we merit to be the beneficiaries of such care and to achieve such understanding.

[1] Translations from the William Davidson Talmud, also available on I have eliminated its commentary and made a few light edits for clarity.
[2] The term “scriptural anchor” is more apt than “prooftext” here because Rav’s principle is not a strict legal (halakhic) matter (failure to abide by it carries no legal consequences), but rather a normative one, and we will soon see that the larger objective of the sugya is theological. That is, we will see that the midrashic mode here is less midrash halakhah (deriving law from scripture) as it is midrash aggadah (deriving life lessons from scripture). The term “prooftext” may be appropriate for the former, but something like “scriptural anchor” seems appropriate for the latter. (The halakhic term asmakhta also seems inappropriate as it connotes scripture that is consistent with but not the basis for a law, which is founded instead in logic or tradition.) Thanks to Simi Peters for helping to clarify this point.
[3] Leviticus 1:2, ad loc.
[4] Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “When Shabbat First Provided a Taste of the World to Come,” The Lehrhaus, January 28, 2021.
[5] Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Three in One: Creation, Exodus, and Equality,” The Lehrhaus, August 3, 2017.
[6] Simi Peters, Learning to Read Midrash (Feldheim, 2005). See especially pp. 50-53, 58-60.
[7] Another example is presented in Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “How to Curtail Pernicious Social Competition: The Legacy of Zelophehad and his Daughters,” The Lehrhaus, July 29, 2019.
[8] This is also hinted by the reference to the gift of Shabbat being extracted from “God’s storehouse.” The other Talmudic reference to God’s storehouse (Shabbat 88b; Zevahim 116a) also describes God’s storehouse as containing esoteric knowledge (the Torah) and God’s giving of this gift to Moses and Israel as symbolic of God’s munificent, caring relationship with humankind.
[9] See Zuckerman Sivan, op cit. “When Shabbat First Provided a Taste of the World to Come.”
[10] Once one eliminates redundancies, there are only four other mentions of the word kuhla (blue ointment) in the Babylonian Talmud outside our sugya, and in no other is it described as being smeared on someone’s (a child’s) face. In two cases, it refers to makeup for women (Yoma 9b and Shabbat 62b). In the other cases, it seems to be a medicinal salve (Shabbat 151b and Gittin 69a).
[11] See Zuckerman Sivan, op cit. “When Shabbat First Provided a Taste of the World to Come.”
[12] Of course our sugya hardly exhausts our sages’ efforts to grapple with this theological challenge. See e.g., Hagigah 4b-5b for an extended discussion of this challenge with a range of perspectives on it.
[13] See Hirsch, ad loc.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His main current research project (from which several of his Lehrhaus essays, including this one, is drawn) is a book on the invention of the seven-day week. Ezra is teaching an online course on this topic at Drisha (, beginning March 3rd. He welcomes feedback at and he tweets at @ewzucker.