What does it really mean to be “shomer Shabbos”?

As Yaakov Avinu prepared for their showdown, he sent Eisav a critical message: “Im Lavan garti–With Lavan I have lived (B’reishis 32:5). Rashi points out that the Hebrew word garti has the numerical value of 613, hinting to “taryag mitzvos shamarti.” In other words, Yaakov was warning Eisav that despite the decades he spent living in the house of the evil Lavan, he had remained observant of all the mitzvos. This merit would protect Yaakov from any attacks Eisav may have been planning.

There’s just one problem with Yaakov’s claim that he had observed all 613 mitzvos: It wasn’t true! While living with Lavan in chutz laAretz, he was certainly unable to fulfill the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, or perform its special mitzvos (e.g., t’rumah, maaser). Furthermore, Chazal highlight Yaakov’s inability to perform kibud av va’eim during his 22 years away from home (Megillah 17a). So how could Yaakov brazenly assert that he had “done it all” when he clearly had not been able to fulfill many mitzvos in the house of Lavan?

In order to understand what message Yaakov was conveying, we need a more precise definition of Rashi’s word “shamarti.” Colloquially, the word lishmor (to observe) is understood as a synonym for “to do.” One who is shomer Shabbos is someone who acts a certain way: He closes his business for the day and makes Kiddush over a cup of wine.

However, Chazal understand the term differently. A shomer is someone who sits and watches. He is “observant” – not only in action, but in heightened attention and interest. For example, in next week’s parshah, the Torah uses the word “shamar” to describe Yaakov’s reaction to Yosef’s dreams (B’reishis 37:11). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Yaakov was filled with eager anticipation for the day when Yosef’s prophecies would come to fruition. Based on this new definition, a shomer Shabbos is not merely a person who practices the technical rituals of the day, but one who longingly and excitedly awaits the arrival of Shabbos each week (Or HaChayim, Sh’mos 31:16).

Returning to our parshah, the Chasam Sofer explains that when Yaakov declared “taryag mitzvos shamarti,” he did not mean that he had technically performed all 613 mitzvos – he hadn’t! Instead, Yaakov maintained that, despite his inability to perform the action of many mitzvos during his years with Lavan, he had nevertheless maintained his strong attachment to them. It was specifically because he was not able to live in Eretz Yisrael or care for his parents that he had increased his yearning and eager anticipation for the opportunity when he could do so once again. What Yaakov was so confident would protect him from Eisav was not a technical, rote checklist of mitzvah actions, but an outlook and a lifestyle of excitement for Hashem’s mitzvos. As long as he was missing the mitzvos, he was not missing out!

We can learn from Yaakov Avinu what it means to be “shomer Torah u’mitzvos.” Do we look forward to Shabbos each week? Are we joyous as we prepare for an approaching holiday? Do we exude pride and satisfaction when we have the opportunity to learn Torah or provide chesed? The answer to these questions can help separate those who simply “observe” halachah from the ones who are truly “shomer” mitzvos.

Rabbi Yaakov Abramovitz is Assistant to the Rabbi at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and presides over its Young Marrieds Minyan, while also pursuing a PsyD in School and Clinical Child Psychology at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..