Shabbat: The Sabbath

"For six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it."
-- Exodus 20:11




What is the Sabbath?

Most people know the Sabbath as the day of the week on which Jews are forbidden to work. However, from the Jewish perspective the Sabbath is not about rules but about joyful celebration and rest. As one Jewish author puts it, "it is a precious gift from G-d, 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." {1} In fact, the Hebrew word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for "rest." (Shabbat is pronounced "sha-BAHT.") The Sabbath is the day Jews can relax, be with family, study, and reflect.

In the Torah, the purpose of Sabbath observance is to remind the Hebrew people of two very important events in history: the creation of the world (Ex. 20:11) and the deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). Both highlight the central Jewish religious belief: that there is one, powerful creator God who cares for his people. Jews also believe that God commanded the Sabbath to ensure that his people stopped every once in awhile to be a human being instead of a "human doing."





Sabbath Prohibitions

The restrictions on work are more strict for the Sabbath than for other holidays that prohibit work. Leviticus 23:3 commands the Jews to "do no manner of work" on the Sabbath, whereas Leviticus 23:7 requires them to "do no manner of servile work" on the festivals. The general interpretation of the latter is that work can be done on the festivals if it contributes to the enjoyment of the festival and could not have been done beforehand. Thus baking bread or grinding fresh coffee is allowed on the festivals, but not on the Sabbath.

The rabbis who wrote the Talmud established 39 categories of work that cannot be performed on the Sabbath according to the Hebrew Bible. These include cooking, washing clothes, constructing, repairing, writing, making a fire, cutting, fishing, and so on. They also added several other activities that could lead to violating the Sabbath - for instance, one should not climb a tree on the Sabbath to avoid breaking a twig and violating the rule not to cut.

Over the last century, rabbis have had to figure out how to apply the ancient laws to modern inventions. They have decided that, for instance, one cannot drive on the Sabbath because it involves both moving an object and igniting the fuel, both of which are prohibited. Because Jews attend synagogue services on the Sabbath, this explains why Jewish communities are often clustered in a small area and within walking distance of a synagogue.

As with all other aspects of Jewish law, different Jews observe the Sabbath prohibitions to different degrees. While Orthodox Jews often set their lights on timers and unscrew the lightbulbs in their refrigerators on the Sabbath, most Conservative Jews wouldn't worry about lights and feel comfortable driving to the synagogue as well. Many Reform Jews ignore the restrictions entirely, but might try to attend the Friday night Sabbath service.

The Sabbath restrictions do not prohibit everything that takes effort. On the contrary, Jews are encouraged to play games, take a stroll, study the Torah, sing, attend lectures, or make love with their spouse on the Sabbath. It is work that is forbidden on the Sabbath - play is encouraged.


Sabbath Observances

In Judaism, a day is not from midnight to midnight but from sunset to sunset. Thus Sabbath, which is Saturday, begins at sundown Friday night.

Welcoming the Sabbath and Lighting the Candles

In the Talmud, Shabbat is personified as a beautiful bride who would be greeted each week with joy. The Sabbath is also associated with the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine Presence. Thus Jews often refer to the Sabbath as a "she," not an "it." The first order of business as the daylight fades on Friday is to welcome the Sabbath like a treasured guest. Many Jewish households prepare for her by cleaning the house, preparing a nice meal, bathing and dressing nicely.

No later than 18 minutes before sundown on Friday, the woman of house lights at least two candles to welcome the Sabbath. The exact time of sundown is listed in Hebrew calendars, daily papers, and many places online. Men can light the Sabbath candles, too, but women generally do so because traditionally the man has not returned from work or synagogue by sundown. However, in many modern Jewish households the candle blessing is performed together as an entire family.

After lighting the candles the following blessing is recited over the candles:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our god, Ruling Presence of the Universe, Who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this mitzvah of kindling the Sabbath lights.

The Four Blessings

When everyone has arrived at home for the evening, the table is set for the Sabbath meal and the family gathers for the Sabbath blessings. First, the family might sing together; a popular choice is Shalom Aleichem, "Peace to You."

Next, the father blesses their children by places his hand on their heads or embracing them all, and reciting:

[For a son:] May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh [the two sons of Joseph].

[For a daughter:] May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah [the four matriarchs of the Bible].

The Eternal One blesses you and protects you. The Eternal One shines God's Presence upon you and is gracious to you. The Eternal One lifts up God's Presence to you and grants you Peace.

The husband then honors his wife by reading from Proverbs 31:10-31, which begins "What a rare find is a capable wife!"

The next blessing is over the wine and is called the Shabbat Kiddush (Sabbath Sanctification). Everyone holds a full cup of wine of grape juice, and the husband (the wife could do it, too) recites this blessing:

It was evening and it was morning. On the sixth day the heavens and the earth and all their hosts were completed.F For by the seventh day God had completed the work which he had made, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work which he had made. Then God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from the work which he had created to make.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruling Presence of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruling Presence of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and finds favor in us; giving us the holy Sabbath as a heritage in love and favor, a remembrance of the creation, that day being also the first among all the holy occasions, a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. For You have chosen us and hallowed us above all nations [some omit this last part], giving us Your holy Sabbath as a heritage in love and favor. Blessed are You, Eternal One, who sanctifies the Sabbath.

Everyone responds with "Amen." Incidentally, this blessing does not actually sanctify the wine, but rather the whole Sabbath day.

The Kiddush is followed by a ritual hand-washing. Less traditional Jews tend to skip this step. Each person pours a little water over the right hand and then the left hand, and recites this blessing:

Blessed are You, Eternal One Our God, Ruling Presence of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot and gives us this mitzvah of washing the hands.

The hands are then dried on a towel. It is customary not to speak between the washing of the hands and the next blessing.

Finally comes the Motzi, the blessing over bread. The bread is usually two loaves of challah, braided egg-bread. The two loaves are seen by some as representing the double portion of manna God gave the Hebrews in the wilderness, by others as signifying the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Only one person needs to say this blessing, as long as everyone else says "Amen" afterward:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Ruling Presence of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Each person then breaks off a piece of bread, salts it (as the ancient sacrifies were), and eats one or two bites, and everyone shouts Shabbat shalom! This phrase is heard throughout the Sabbath, beginning Friday afternoon.

The Sabbath Meal

Friday night dinner is usually the most festive and tasty of the week. There are no particular specifications as to what can be served, except for the usual rules of kosher. After the meal, families often sing more songs.

Sabbath Prayer Services

Synagogues of every Jewish denomination hold services on Friday night. For Conservative and Reform Jews, this is the "main" prayer service of the week. Orthodox Jews tend to focus more on the Saturday morning service, and their Friday service is relatively short (around 45 minutes). Whenever it is held, Sabbath prayer services are similar to any synagogue service, with the addition of some extra prayers, Torah readings and blessings. See Jewish Worship and Prayer for more information.

Saying Goodbye to Shabbat

The Sabbath officially ends at nightfall on Saturday. In traditional families, a havdalah ("separation") ceremony is celebrated after nightfall, either at the synagogue or at home. It consists of blessings over wine, smelling fragrant spices (like cloves), lighting a havdalah candle (a braided candle with two wicks together) and blessing the havdalah.

When the Sabbath is officially over, people greet one another with Shavuah tov! ("a good week!") or Gute voch! (the same thing, in Yiddish). Many Jews then have another celebration, called melavah malkah ("escorting the queen").





References

  1. Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101: Shabbat.
  2. Ted Falcon and David Blatner, Judaism for Dummies (2001), pp. 207-22.
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