The Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am famously observed that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
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Indeed, the weekly holiday, whose observance is rooted in the first book of the Torah, can fairly be said to constitute the most formative element of Jewish life. It is reasonable to say that Shabbat and its observance are the very essence of Judaism, and that at the same time the Jews have been busy following its rules and limits, this holiest of days has been central to preserving their uniqueness as a people.
But what is Shabbat?
“Shabbat” is the Hebrew name for Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Since "day" in the Hebrew calendar goes from sunset to sunset, Shabbat (“Sabbath” in English) extends from just before sunset Friday to sundown on Saturday.
The word literally means “rest,” and during its daylight hours, the Jew – and those who work for him – are commanded to cease from performing any work.
The Hebrew word “melakha” describes what is proscribed on Shabbat: The term refers to creative work, labor that in some way exercises control over one’s environment.
What constitutes “work” is one of the most significant subjects taken up by works of Jewish law and commentary, beginning with the Bible and continuing through to current scholarship. Some commoon activities that are forbidden are cooking and baking, laundry (by machine or hand), household repair tasks, kindling or extinguishing a fire and gardening.
In the Mishna (Tractate Shabbat 7:2), the Sages list 39 categories of melakhot that were used in the construction of the Tabernacle, the “tent of meeting” that provided a portable home for the Shekhina, the divine presence, and which the Hebrews carried with them during their 40 years in the desert. These 39 categories of creative activity, which are derived from the Torah but not necessarily mentioned explicitly there, include: the acts required for baking bread, for making clothes and for building a house, as well as writing; and the various operations required in assembling and covering the Tabernacle. From these are derived all the laws related to forbidden work.
One might think that Shabbat, occurring once every seven days, is far from special. But even today, when most societies have some sort of weekend, the Jewish Sabbath is a radical game-changer: a reminder to the individual that the world does not revolve around her and her needs alone, that everyone can afford to break routine once a week, and contemplate the larger questions in life.
Marking God's rest, or the Exodus from Egypt
The first Shabbat in history in described in Genesis 2:2-3: “on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day / And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it”
The Sabbath is bequeathed to mankind as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (the only Jewish ritual to appear there), which are delineated in full twice in the Torah. The two explanations are profoundly different, however.
In Exodus 20:8-11, where the Hebrews are told to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” the explanation offered is that it was on the seventh day that “God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. / And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.”
Later, in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, however, in the second iteration of the Ten Commandments, they are told to “observe” the Sabbath day, as a way of remembering “that thou was a servant in the Land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm.”
Life prevails over Shabbat
The Sabbath is far from a mere list of restrictions, however. As the first culture to offer all people – not just property-owners, for example – as well as their beasts of burden, a mandated day of rest, Judaism was clearly intending to enrich life, and remind people not only that they are all equal before God (and therefore deserving of rest, even if they were slaves), but also that they are not the be-all and end-all of creation.
And while the laws of Shabbat are the most important in Judaism – in the Bible, theoretically, public violation of the Sabbath was grounds for being stoned to death – the Talmud explains that when a human life is considered to be in any danger, it is not only permitted, but obligatory, to break the laws necessary to protect that life (for example, by driving to the hospital or providing medical care).
Today, people who observe the Shabbat in the traditional sense will not travel, spend money, operate electrical appliances, or cook or write on the seventh day, although the interpretation of each of these categories leaves much room for flexibility.
In Israel, Shabbat is the mandated day off from work, and most Jewish-owned businesses, including public transportation, are closed, although there have been many breaches in public observance in recent decades. There have also been calls to run public transportation on Shabbat, which have been rejected by Israeli ministers.
Dividing between light and darkness
Just before Shabbat begins, candles are lit marking the division between light and dark described in the story of Creation and a blessing is recited, generally by the matriarch of the house. Some say the candles also represent the two commandments to “remember” and “observe” Shabbat.
Observant Jews will attend evening synagogue services and then have a festive dinner at home, surrounded by family and friends.
Wine is consumed at the evening meal after the man of the house recites Kiddush, a prayer over the wine sanctifying Shabbat. Often, challah, a sweet, braided loaf of bread is served with Shabbat dinner and lunch, which are generally stewed or slow-cooked meals – such as cholent – that are sometimes kept warm on hot plates, due to the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat.
Whereas a traditional Jew prays three times during a normal day, on Shabbat, there is an additional service in the synagogue, and the weekly Torah portion is read.
Resting does not necessarily mean sleeping: Traditionally, part of the day is devoted to study, and Shabbat is also a day when couples are encouraged to cohabit.