Shabbat (The Sabbath)

The Torah tells us in the first chapter of Genesis that God created our world in six days and rested on the seventh day. The seventh day was a day sanctified and set apart from the other days for rest. Human beings, created in the Divine Image, the Torah maintains, are therefore obligated to imitate the Creator by working for six days and resting on the seventh. All work is prohibited on Shabbat (the sabbath); it is a day set aside for prayer, study, good food, rest, and time spent with family and friends. It is a time to stop working and creating so that we can enjoy and appreciate God's Creation.

Why did God place a burning bush on Mount Sinai? Perhaps it was in order to get Moses' attention. Perhaps it was so that Moses would stop long enough to become aware of God's presence at Horeb. Like Moses, we need to slow down in order to become fully aware of God's presence in our lives. Shabbat provides an opportunity for us -- as a community -- to take a collective deep sigh, step back from the workaday world, and reevaluate our lives. Through Shabbat rest, prayer, and reflection, we have an opportunity to take stock of ourselves and redirect our lives. By setting aside one day each week to imitate God in the manner of Shabbat rest, we are reminded how important it is to act in a godly manner the other six days of the week. Shabbat is a time of renewal, a time to recharge our spiritual batteries.

The Torah specifically forbids lighting fires and doing work (melakhah) on Shabbat. It appears from a cursory reading that the Torah means by "work" that which one does the other six days in order to earn a living. The Rabbis were more specific in their interpretation of the meaning of this prohibition. On the basis of the juxtaposition of the Torah's prohibition against work on Shabbat and description of the work required to complete the Mishkan (the wilderness Tabernacle) (Exodus 31:12-18), the Rabbis derived 39 categories of work, all labors involved in the construction of the Mishkan, which are forbidden on Shabbat. The 39 categories are listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2. They are:

  1. Sowing
  2. Plowing
  3. Reaping
  4. Binding sheaves
  5. Threshing
  6. Winnowing
  7. Selecting
  8. Grinding
  9. Sifting
  10. Kneading
  11. Baking
  12. Shearing wool
  13. Washing wool
  14. Beating wool
  15. Dyeing wool
  16. Spinning
  17. Weaving
  18. Making two loops
  19. Weaving two threads
  20. Separating two threads
  21. Tying
  22. Untying
  23. Sewing two stitches
  24. Tearing
  25. Trapping
  26. Slaughtering
  27. Flaying
  28. Salting meat
  29. Curing hide
  30. Scraping hide
  31. Cutting hide up
  32. Writing two letters
  33. Erasing two letters
  34. Building
  35. Tearing a building down
  36. Extinguishing a fire
  37. Kindling a fire
  38. Hitting with a hammer
  39. Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.

Later interpreters applied these categories to other activities. The end result is a large complex of prohibited activities, paving the way for a day of rest, prayer, study, and quality family time. The laws of Shabbat as they developed are extensive and complex, but the essence remains the same: to provide a day for the community to live in imitation of God in order to remind people of their potential and purpose.

Shabbat is holy time. It is initiated when the blessing is recited over candles just prior to sundown on Friday evening. It extends until three stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night and Havdalah (the ceremony ending Shabbat) is recited. In the 25 hours elapsing between, there are a great many ways that different Jews choose to keep Shabbat. The notion that throughout the world, Jews who speak different tongues and observe different customs, are nonetheless bound together by common practices on Shabbat, is a powerful one. So, too, the knowledge that throughout the generations of our people, for well over three millennia, Jews have hallowed the seventh day, is an inspiring notion. Ahad Ha'Am was quite correct and deeply insightful when he wrote, "A Jew who feels a real tie with the life of his people throughout the generations will find it utterly impossible to think of the existence of the Jew without the Shabbat. One can say without exaggeration that more than the Jew has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jew." This is true today, as it was in ancient days. When we gather each week to celebrate Shabbat in the synagogue, we reconnect with our community and strengthen one another.

The midrash tells us that Shabbat is a taste of the world-to-come. What does this mean? It means that Shabbat is a model or sample of what the world will be like in the messianic age, when the world has been redeemed. The midrash explains that when God gave Israel the Torah, God promised that if the people would keep God's commandments, they would be rewarded with the world-to-come. The Israelites hadn't the slightest idea what God was promising, so God gave them Shabbat as a taste of the world-to-come (Otiyot d'Rabbi Akiba). For this reason, the liturgy is altered on Shabbat to omit petitions to God for all that we need in preparation for the messianic age. On Shabbat we live for 25 hours as if the messiah has already come and there is nothing we require. The taste of the world-to-come, it is hoped, will inspire us to work that much harder each of the six days which follow, to bring the messianic age nearer. The responsibility to rest is inextricably tied to the responsibility to work; after all, the Torah says, "For six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Day of Rest (a sabbath) unto the Lord your God." Rested, refreshed, and inspired, we return to our work with a sense of purpose and direction.

Shabbat is usher in with candles (light), blessings over the children (our greatest blessing), wine (joy), food and song. The evening service is preceded by Kabbalat Shabbat, a service of psalms and songs compiled by the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. Kabbalat Shabbat includes a psalm for every day of the week (Psalms 95-99 and 29), as well as a wedding song for Shabbat, Lecha Dodi (the Kabbalists envision Shabbat as a bride who metaphorically weds Israel, her groom, each week); and the Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92. The Shabbat morning services includes a Torah reading; the weekly Torah portion is read in the synagogue. The Torah is read in the afternoon, as well. Three full meals are eaten during Shabbat, and the day is concluded with Havdalah.

Perhaps the most unique feature of Shabbat is that it teaches us how to make time holy. We are accustomed to considering places and object sacred, but Shabbat is holy time. It the modern secular world, where "time is money" and no one every has enough time, Shabbat comes to deliver a message we all need to hear: We are the masters of our time and our lives; we are not slaves. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments." (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Our Time, p. 6). While others build cathedrals of bricks in space, Jews build cathedrals in time, by sanctifying holy moments such as Shabbat. Shabbat permits us, indeed bids us, to separate ourselves from the ephemeral physical world (at least somewhat) one day each week so that we can taste eternity.

More Ideas and Ideals: