In order to grasp the concept of Shabbat it is vital to understand the significance of the other six days of the week. On the other six days God commands us to work (Exodus 20:9). Yet this can be dangerous, because in doing so, we neglect our other needs. Shabbat forces us to appreciate the value of what it means “not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord” (A. Heschel, The Sabbath, New York, 1951).
Shabbat is the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments, so if you do not keep the Sabbath, you are only keeping 9 of them. It is also the most repeated ritual in the Torah. In Exodus 31:14, we read “You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; any one who profanes it shall be put to death. For whoever does any work on that day shall be cut off from his people.” These terms are so strong because Jewish law treats one who does not keep the Sabbath as one who abandons Judaism. This reveals that the Sabbath is the most important institution of Judaism.
Shabbat is fundamentally a day of rest (menuchah), which is seen as a state of being. It is therefore forbidden to take part in everyday activities, freeing one in the basic sense of the word from all tasks. Rest on Shabbat does not have the same implications as rest on another day. It is an intense, spiritual, inward experience allowing people to rediscover themselves and the world around them.
An understanding of the meaning of “work” (melachah) (Exodus 20:10), is imperative to fulfilling the requirements of Shabbat correctly. ‘Melachah’ is a different concept to that of ‘work’ in English, but unfortunately English has no better word to use as its translation. To refrain from melachah means to suspend all action which interferes with the physical world. This derives from the construction of the Mishkan (sanctuary in the desert – tabernacle). All activities involved in building this were forbidden on Shabbat, and these activities number the 39 forbidden acts.
Shabbat is also a testimony that God is the Supreme Creator of heaven and earth. The more we try to control the world, the more we become in danger of forgetting our place in it. Refraining from work therefore means refraining from any act that shows human mastery over the world. (I. Grunfeld, The Sabbath, Jerusalem, 1972).
Shabbat cannot simply begin; it must be prepared for adequately and in time. Traditionally, preparation begins on Wednesday and officially ends the following Tuesday, when the last recital of Havdalah is heard. Therefore the whole week revolves around Shabbat. On the Wednesday verses from the Kabbalat Shabbat service are added to the psalm to inaugurate the new Shabbat.
Both physical and spiritual preparation are required for the commencement of Shabbat. On the night before Shabbat (Erev Shabbat) the house should be cleaned, food cooked, clothes washed, so that everything feels fresh for Shabbat. Spiritual preparation involves clearing the mind of all weekday thoughts. It is customary to visit the mikvah (the ritual bath), or to study the Torah portion of the week (Parshat HaShavuah).
It is said that the world is ‘re-souled’ every Shabbat, and that those who recognise this gain neshamah yetairah, (an additional soul). This additional soul is said to embody the height of spiritual happiness that is created by Shabbat, the seventh day of creation. Without Shabbat, the world would have remained soulless.
Shabbat encompasses God’s feminine aspect, the Shechinah (Divine Presence). Therefore Shabbat is seen as feminine, represented as the Bride (Kallah). This theme is recurrent throughout the Friday Night service, for example in the traditional song “Lecha Dodi” (“Come O Bride”). In Jewish mysticism it is believed that Shabbat symbolises the marriage of God to Israel and the marriage of Israel to Shabbat.
Shabbat is also likened to a Queen (Malka), or a royal Bride. The Malkah represents stability, observance, discipline and permanence throughout Shabbat. Just as it is said, “Remember the Sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) and “Observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12), so Shabbat is both Bride and Queen, both inward feeling and outward observance (Dresner, The Sabbath, New York, 1970).
Shabbat is a complex yet beautiful and peaceful time imbued with the feeling of a wedding. It is a time for inner reflection as well as for outward communication with family and friends.