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Shabbat:
What is Shabbat?


Shabbat: Table of Contents | Special Shabbats | Torah Reading


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Shabbat (שַׁבָּת; related to Hebrew verb "cease, rest") is the seventh day of the Jewish week and is the day of rest and abstention from work as commanded by God. Shabbat involves two interrelated commandments: to remember (zachor) and to observe (shamor).

- Origins in the Torah
- The Nature of Shabbat
- Zachor: To Remember
- Shamor: To Observe
- A Typical Shabbat

Origins in the Torah

The etiology of Shabbat is given in the first two chapters of the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), although the name of the day does not actually appear there: God worked six days at creating the world on the seventh he ceased working (shavat mi-kol melaʾkhto), blessed the day, and declared it holy.

The special status of this seventh day - and its name - were disclosed to the Israelite people in the episode of the manna. God supplied each day's need of manna for five days; on the sixth, a double portion was provided to last through the seventh day, on which no manna appeared. Correspondingly, the Israelites were commanded not to go out at all but to remain at home on the seventh day. Thus they learned that the seventh day was "a Shabbat of the Lord," which they must honor by desisting from their daily food-gathering labor.

According to the Book of Exodus, work is to cease on the seventh day in order to give slaves and draft animals rest, a statute that must be observed even during the critical plowing and harvest seasons. The Book of Deuteronomy's version embodies this humanitarian motive in its divergent rationale of the Shabbat rest - Israel is to keep the Shabbat so that its slaves might rest, and because God so commanded. God's instructions for building the Tabernacle begins with an admonition to keep the Shabbat, indicating its precedence even over the duty of building the Sanctuary. The Shabbat is then called a sign of both God's consecration of Israel and of His six-day creation.

The Nature of Shabbat

The Shabbat is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not generally observe the stringincies of the day think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer like the Christian Shabbat. But to those who observe Shabbat, it is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.

In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen, as in the popular Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi. It is said "more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel." Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word "Shabbat" comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.

Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism and is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more so than Yom Kippur.

Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Although substantial time is usually spent in synagogue praying, prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. To say that Shabbat is a day of prayer is no more accurate than to say that Shabbat is a day of feasting: we eat every day, but on Shabbat, we eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat.

In modern America, we take the five-day work-week so much for granted that we forget what a radical concept a day of rest was in ancient times. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilization. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or laboring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because we insisted on having a "holiday" every seventh day.

Zachor: To Remember

We are commanded to remember Shabbat; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat. It also means to remember the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and as a commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 20:11, after Fourth Commandment is first instituted, G-d explains, "because for six days, the L-rd made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the L-rd blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it." By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, we remember and acknowledge that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d did. If G-d's work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?

In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat: "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d brought you forth from there with a might hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd your G-d commanded you to observe the Shabbat day."

What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It's all about freedom. As I said before, in ancient times, leisure was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Shabbat, we are reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.

We remember these two meanings of Shabbat when we recite kiddush (the prayer over wine sanctifying the Shabbat or a holiday). Friday night kiddush refers to Shabbat as both zikkaron l'ma'aseh bereishit (a memorial of the work in the beginning) and zeicher litzi'at mitzrayim (a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).

Shamor: To Observe

Of course, no discussion of Shabbat would be complete without a discussion of the work that is forbidden on Shabbat. This is another aspect of Shabbat that is grossly misunderstood by people who do not observe it.

Most Americans see the word "work" and think of it in the English sense of the word: physical labor and effort, or employment. Under this definition, turning on a light would be permitted, because it does not require effort, but a rabbi would not be permitted to lead Shabbat services, because leading services is his employment. Jewish law prohibits the former and permits the latter. Many Americans therefore conclude that Jewish law doesn't make any sense.

The problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the definition that Americans are using. The Torah does not prohibit "work" in the 20th century English sense of the word. The Torah prohibits "melachah" (Mem-Lamed-Alef-Kaf-Heh), which is usually translated as "work," but does not mean precisely the same thing as the English word. Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must understand the word "melachah."

Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment. The word may be related to "melech" (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The quintessential example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d's work did not require a great physical effort: he spoke, and it was done.

The word melachah is rarely used in scripture outside of the context of Shabbat and holiday restrictions. The only other repeated use of the word is in the discussion of the building of the sanctuary and its vessels in the wilderness. Exodus Ch. 31, 35-38. Notably, the Shabbat restrictions are reiterated during this discussion (Ex. 31:13), thus we can infer that the work of creating the sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, the rabbis concluded that the work prohibited on the Shabbat is the same as the work of creating the sanctuary.

They found 39 categories of forbidden acts, all of which are types of work that were needed to build the sanctuary:

Sowing Plowing Reaping Binding sheaves Threshing Winnowing
Selecting Grinding Sifting Kneading Baking Shearing wool
Washing wool Beating wool Dyeing wool Spinning Weaving Making two loops
Weaving threads Separating threads Tying Untying Sewing two stitches Tearing
Trapping Slaughtering Flaying Salting meat Curing hide Scraping hide
Cutting hide up Writing two letters Erasing two letters Building Tearing a building down Extinguishing a fire
Kindling a fire Hitting with a hammer Transporting an object from the private domain to the public domain

All of these tasks are prohibited, as well as any task that operates by the same principle or has the same purpose. In addition, the rabbis have prohibited coming into contact with any implement that could be used for one of the above purposes (for example, you may not touch a hammer or a pencil), travel, buying and selling, and other weekday tasks that would interfere with the spirit of Shabbat. The use of electricity is prohibited because it serves the same function as fire or some of the other prohibitions, or because it is technically considered to be "fire."

The issue of the use of an automobile on Shabbat, so often argued by non-observant Jews, is not really an issue at all for observant Jews. The automobile is powered by an internal combustion engine, which operates by burning gasoline and oil, a clear violation of the Torah prohibition against kindling a fire. In addition, the movement of the car would constitute transporting an object in the public domain, another violation of a Torah prohibition, and in all likelihood the car would be used to travel a distance greater than that permitted by rabbinical prohibitions. For all these reasons, and many more, the use of an automobile on Shabbat is clearly not permitted.

As with almost all of the commandments, all of these Shabbat restrictions can be violated if necessary to save a life.

A Typical Shabbat

At about 2PM or 3PM on Friday afternoon, observant Jews leave the office to begin Shabbat preparations. The mood is much like preparing for the arrival of a special, beloved guest: the house is cleaned, the family bathes and dresses up, the best dishes and tableware are set, a festive meal is prepared. In addition, everything that cannot be done during Shabbat must be set up in advance: lights and appliances must be set (or timers placed on them, if the household does so), the light bulb in the refrigerator must be removed, so it does not turn on when you open it, and preparations for the remaining Shabbat meals must be made.

The Shabbat, like all Jewish days, begins at sunset, because in the story of creation in Genesis Ch. 1, you will notice that it says, "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day." From this, we infer that a day begins with evening, that is, sunset. Shabbat candles are lit and a blessing is recited no later than eighteen minutes before sunset. This ritual, performed by the woman of the house, officially marks the beginning of the Shabbat. Two candles are lit, representing the two commandments: zachor and shamor.

The family then attends a brief evening service (45 minutes - that's brief by Jewish standards - see Jewish Liturgy).

After services, the family comes home for a festive, leisurely dinner. Before dinner, it is customary for parents to bless their children. Then the man of the house recites Kiddush, a prayer over wine sanctifying the Shabbat. The usual prayer for eating bread is recited over two loaves of challah, a sweet, eggy bread shaped in a braid. The family then eats dinner. Although there are no specific requirements or customs regarding what to eat, meals are generally stewed or slow cooked items, because of the prohibition against cooking during the Shabbat. (Things that are mostly cooked before Shabbat and then reheated or kept warm are OK).

After dinner, the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. Although this is done every day, on the Shabbat, it is done in a leisurely manner with many upbeat tunes.

By the time all of this is completed, it may be 9PM or later. The family has an hour or two to talk or study Torah, and then go to sleep.

The next morning Shabbat services begin around 9AM and continue until about noon. After services, the family says kiddush again and has another leisurely, festive meal. A typical afternoon meal is cholent, a very slowly cooked stew. By the time birkat ha-mazon is done, it is about 2PM. The family studies Torah for a while, talks, takes an afternoon walk, plays some checkers, or engages in other leisure activities. A short afternoon nap is not uncommon. It is traditional to have a third meal before the Shabbat is over. This is usually a light meal in the late afternoon.

Shabbat ends at nightfall, when three stars are visible, approximately 40 minutes after sunset. At the conclusion of Shabbat, the family performs a concluding ritual called Havdalah (separation, division). Blessings are recited over wine, spices and candles. Then a blessing is recited regarding the division between the sacred and the secular, between the Shabbat and the working days, etc.

As you can see, Shabbat is a very full day when it is properly observed, and very relaxing. You really don't miss being unable to turn on the TV, drive a car or go shopping.


Sources: Judaism 101; Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group.

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