The Nature of Shabbat

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 of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer like the Christian Sabbath. But to 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 is said "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. At sundown, we light two candles to honor Shabbat to calculate the halachically correct candle lighting time for San Jose on a week-by-week basis, we have created an automatic schedule for you (Shabbat "officially" begins 18 minutes before sundown).

Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Although we 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: we eat every day, but on Shabbat, we eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat.

In modern America, we take the five-day work-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 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 we insisted on having a "holiday" every seventh day.

Gates of the Seasons, the American Reform Movement's guide to the Jewish Year, views Shabbat as a unique Jewish contribution to civilization, and a central activity to surviving the forces of assimilation and corruption. As such, it calls out the following mitzvot for Reform Jews:

The Mitzvah of Shabbat Observance

It is a mitzvah for every Jew, single or married, young or old, to observe Shabbat. The unique status of Shabbat is demonstrated by its being the only one of the holy days to be mentioned in the Ten Commandments. ... Shabbat observance involves both positive and negative mitzvot, i.e., doing and refraining from doing.

The Mitzvah of Joy

It is a mitzvah to take delight in Shabbat observance, as Isaiah said, "You shall call Shabbat a delight". Oneg implies celebration and relaxation, sharing time with loved ones, enjoying the beauty of nature, eating a leisurely meal made special with conviviality and song, visiting with friends and relatives, taking a leisurely stroll, reading, and listening to music.

The Mitzvah of Sanctification

It is a mitzvah to hallow Shabbat by setting it apart from the other days of the week. ... Shabbat must be distinguished from the other days of the week so that those who observe it may be transformed by its holiness.

The Mitzvah of Rest

It is a mitzvah to rest on Shabbat. However, Shabbat rest (menuchah) implies much more than refraining from work. The concept of Shabbat rest includes both physical relaxation and tranquility of mind and spirit. On Shabbat, one deliverately turns away from weekday pressures and activities.

The Mitzvah of refraining from work

It is a mitzvah to refrain from work on Shabbat...Abstinence from work is a major expression of Shabbat observance; however, it is no simple matter to define work today. Certain activities that some do to earn a living, others do for relaxation or to express their creativity. Clearly, though, one should avoid one's normal occupation or profession on Shabbat whenever possible and engage only in those types of activities that enhance the joy, rest, and holiness of the day.

We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with (kedushah), holiness, (menuchah), rest and (oneg), joy.

© Copyright 5756-5760 (1995-1999), Tracey R Rich; Image Header and additional edits 2002 by Jonathan L. Hirshon

© 2008, Temple Emanu-El of San Jose, except as noted for additional content used with permission and/or as attributed to original author. All Rights Reserved.