A gift from God
What would you do if you were given the gift of being able to do nothing?
Where would you be if you had no place you had to be?
What do you never have enough time for as the week goes by?
If you have ever had these thoughts, you are on the way to understanding the mystery of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath).
Shabbat is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. 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’.
The injunction to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is the fourth of the Ten Commandments recorded in the Five Books of Moses (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12). The commandment continues: “Six days you shall work but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord.”
The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ also implies ‘separate’. Shabbat is a day set apart. In Jewish literature it is often called ‘a taste of the world to come’. Shabbat is seen as a gift from God to the Jewish people; as a sign of the eternal bond between them.
Although it occurs once every week, Shabbat is a Jewish holiday of prime importance. Rabbinic legend asserts that along with the Torah, Shabbat was in existence before the creation of the world.
An Island in Time
Jews are a people who sanctify time. Moments in the week, in the year and in the lifecycle of Jews have special meaning. Shabbat, or the Sabbath Day, is the key recurring festival of the Jewish people.
Shabbat is central to Jewish spiritual practice. It is a focal point for Jewish family life, and the source of inspiration for songs, poems, rabbinic teachings and esoteric wisdom. Shabbat is a time for peace, harmony, tranquillity, community and spirituality that is unmatched by any other day.
The Sabbath (or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew) is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not observe Shabbat think it must be a day filled with stifling restrictions. But to those who do observe it, Shabbat is a precious gift from God. It is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.
Shabbat is more than a day of rest. It is an experience that is often described as ‘stepping outside time’. All the labour of the week is merely preparation for the sanctity of Shabbat.
The Shabbat as a Queen
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 is commonly said that “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel” (in this context, the name ‘Israel’ refers to the Jewish people as a whole).
On Friday evening, families gather to welcome the ‘Sabbath Bride’. Prior to the onset of Shabbat, women light candles and recite a special blessing. Before the festive meal, other blessings are recited over challah (plaited bread) and wine.
According to one story, if all the Children of Israel kept just two Shabbat days in succession as they are meant to be kept, then the Messiah would arrive. If as a people we observed Shabbat as a time of peace and joyful contemplation of the glories of Creation and as an opportunity to reconnect with our families and with the Source of all Life, this would usher in a messianic age.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!
In modern Australia, we take the five-day working 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 had no parallel in any other ancient civilisation. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or labouring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. In classical Rome Juvenal and Seneca called the Sabbath “an example of Jewish indolence”.
Today, the ways in which Australian Jews observe the Shabbat differ from ancient times, but the essence is the same. Shabbat can be a precious and essential occasion for the entire family.
Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. For some Jews, spending the day contemplating the glories of Nature on a bushwalk or sitting in a park is celebrating the essence of Shabbat as menuchah (rest) and appreciation for Creation.
When Shabbat is due to begin, we take a break from our worldly responsibilities. Everything that we can do has been done. As Abraham Heschel puts it: “[One] must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of Man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world. On Shabbat we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” (A. Heschel, The Sabbath, New York, 1951)
Shabbat (Shabbes in Yiddish) begins before sunset on Friday afternoon and ends after nightfall on Saturday. During this time, observant Jews refrain from various activities, including travelling, writing, commerce, kindling fire, cooking and using electricity. These prohibitions are derived from definitions of the labours that were necessary in the building of the Tabernacle in the desert (Exodus 35-40).
Activities strongly encouraged on Shabbat include studying Torah, reconnecting intimately with your family members, enjoying the opportunity to rest, and sharing leisurely meals on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime replete with songs and stories and the finest delicacies the home can afford. Again, for some, the most treasured aspect of Shabbat is the cessation of the noise of the working week, the ‘sounds of silence’.
The Return to the Week
The close of Shabbat is marked with a ceremony called havdalah (separation), which highlights the distinction between Shabbat and the days of the week. The theme of salvation is expressed with the hope that the messianic redemption will arrive in the next week.
The havdalah ceremony includes a blessing over wine, sniffing of spices and the extinguishing of a lit plaited candle. The wine and spices give a final taste of the joy of Shabbat. The candle is lit as the first act of the new week. There is a Midrash explaining that Adam’s first action when the first Shabbat came to an end and he found himself in darkness was to create light.
Videos About Shabbat
Chabad.org: Shabbat: A Day of Rest & Rejuvenation (video)
Chabad.org: I Need Some Balance! (video)
Aish Hatorah: The Power of Rest and Reflection – Shabbat and Taking Back Control of Our Time (video)