The Nature of Shabbat
The Sabbath or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew, is one of the best known of
all Jewish observances. Jews contend that those who do not observe Shabbat
think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer like
the Christian Sabbath. They state that for those who observe Shabbat, it is a
precious gift from God, 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
Likrat Kallah (come, my beloved, to meet the [Sabbath] bride). It has been
said by rabbis, "more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel."
Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only
ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most
important special day, even more important than Yom Kippur. This is clear
from the fact that more aliyoth (opportunities for congregants to be called up
to the Torah) are given on Shabbat than on any other day.
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 not specifically a day of prayer. Although Jews do pray on
Shabbat and spend a substantial amount of time 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: Jews eat every day, but on Shabbat, they eat
more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of
prayer on Shabbat.
In modern America, most take the five-day workweek so much for granted
that they 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 Jews insisted on
having a "holiday" every seventh day.
Shabbat involves two interrelated commandments: to remember (Zachor)
Shabbat, and to observe (Shamor) Shabbat.
Zachor: To Remember
Jews 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 the Fourth Commandment was instituted, God
explained, "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all
that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the
sabbath day, and hallowed it." By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying
it, Jews remember and acknowledge that God is the Creator of heaven and
earth and all living things. Jews also refrain from work on the seventh day.
They contend that if God work can be set-aside for a day of rest, their work is
not too important to set aside.
In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he
notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat: "And remember
that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God
brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm:
therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day."
What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? Freedom.
In ancient times, leisure was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get
days off. Thus, by resting on Shabbat, we are reminded that we are free. But
in a more general sense, Shabbat frees the Jews from their weekday
concerns, from their deadlines, schedules, and commitments. During the
week, Jews contend that they are slaves to their jobs, to their creditors, to
their need to provide for themselves; on Shabbat, they feel they are freed
from these concerns, much as their ancestors were freed from slavery in
Jews remember these two meanings of Shabbat as they recite Kiddush (the
prayer over wine sanctifying 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
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 Jews say
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
According to one Jewish source, the problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the
definition that most 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 one can begin
to understand the Shabbat restrictions, the word "melachah" must first be
Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that
exercises control or dominion over one’s environment. The word may be
related to "melekh" (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 one can infer that the work
of creating the sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, Jewish
rabbis concluded that the work prohibited on 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:
Making two loops
Weaving two threads
Separating two threads
Sewing two stitches
Cutting hide up
Writing two letters
Erasing two letters
Tearing a building down
Extinguishing a fire
Kindling a fire
Hitting with a hammer
Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an
object in the public domain.
(Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)
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 handling any implement that is intended to perform one of the
above purposes (for example, a hammer, a pencil or a match) unless the tool
is needed for a permitted purpose (using a hammer to crack nuts when
nothing else is available) or needs to be moved to do something permitted
(moving a pencil that is sitting on a prayer book), or in certain other limited
circumstances. Objects that may not be handled on Shabbat are referred to as
"muktzeh," which means, "that which is set aside," because you set it aside
(and don't use it unnecessarily) on Shabbat.
The rabbis also prohibited 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 or
unscrewed, so it does not turn on when you open it, and preparations for the
remaining Shabbat meals must be made.
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 the evening and
the morning were the first day." From this, Jews infer that a day begins with
evening, that is, sunset. For the precise time when Shabbat begins in your
area, consult the list of candle lighting times provided by the Orthodox Union
or any Jewish calendar.
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 Shabbat. Two candles are lit, representing
the two commandments: Zachor (remember) and Shamor (observe). The
family then attends a brief evening service (45 minutes - that's brief by
After services, the family comes home for a festive, leisurely dinner. Before
dinner, the man of the house recites Kiddush, a prayer over wine sanctifying
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 Shabbat. (Things that are mostly cooked
before Shabbat and then reheated or kept warm are considered OK).
After dinner, the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. Although
this is done every day, on 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 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 Shabbat and the working days,
etc. As you can see, Shabbat is a very full day when it is properly observed,
and very relaxing.