Shabbat is a joyful day of rest
Shabbat is two commandments: to remember and to observe
A traditional dish is cholent, slow-cooked stew
For six days you may perform melachah, but the seventh day
is a complete Sabbath, holy to the L-RD ... it is an eternal sign that in six
days, the L-RD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was
refreshed. -Exodus 31:15-17
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 G-d, 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 aliyot (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-Beit-Tav, meaning to
cease, to end, or to rest.
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. See
Jewish Liturgy. 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.
Shabbat involves two interrelated commandments: to remember (zakhor) Shabbat,
and to observe (shamor) Shabbat.
Zakhor: To Remember
Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it (Hebrew: Zakhor et
yom ha-Shabbat l'kad'sho) -Exodus 20:8
We are commanded to remember Shabbat; but remembering means much more than
merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat. It also means to remember the
significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and as a
commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt.
In Exodus 20:11, after Fourth Commandment is first instituted,
G-d explains, "because for six days, the L-rd made
the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh
day, he rested; therefore, the L-rd blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it."
By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, we remember and acknowledge
that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also
emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d
did. If G-d's work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that
our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?
In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the
Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat:
"remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d
brought you forth from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm;
therefore the L-rd your G-d commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."
What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It's all about
freedom. As I said before, in ancient times, leisure was confined to certain
classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on Shabbat, we are
reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from
our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During
the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide
for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our
ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.
We remember these two meanings of Shabbat when we recite kiddush (the prayer
over wine sanctifying Shabbat or a holiday).
Friday night kiddush refers to Shabbat as both zikaron l'ma'aseih v'rei'shit (a
memorial of the work in the beginning) and zeikher litzi'at Mitz'rayim (a
remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).
Shamor: To Observe
Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it (Hebrew: Shamor et
yom ha-Shabbat l'kad'sho) -Deuteronomy 5:12
Of course, no discussion of Shabbat would be complete without a discussion of
the work that is forbidden on Shabbat. This is another aspect of Shabbat that
is grossly misunderstood by people who do not observe it.
Most Americans see the word "work" and think of it in the English sense of the
word: physical labor and effort, or employment. Under this definition, turning
on a light would be permitted, because it does not require effort, but a
rabbi would not be permitted to lead Shabbat
services, because leading services is his employment. Jewish law prohibits the
former and permits the latter. Many Americans therefore conclude that Jewish
law doesn't make any sense.
The problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the definition that Americans are
using. The Torah does not prohibit "work" in the 20th century English sense of
the word. The Torah prohibits "melachah"
(Mem-Lamed-Alef-Kaf-Hei), which is usually
translated as "work," but does not mean precisely the same thing as the English
word. Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must
understand the word "melachah."
Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that
exercises control or dominion over your environment. The word may be related to
"melekh" (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The
quintessential example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which
G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d's work did not require a
great physical effort: he spoke, and it was done.
The word melachah is rarely used in scripture outside of the context of Shabbat
and holiday restrictions. The only other repeated use of the word is in the
discussion of the building of the sanctuary and its vessels in the wilderness.
Exodus Ch. 31, 35-38. Notably, the Shabbat restrictions are reiterated during
this discussion (Ex. 31:13), thus we can infer that the work of creating the
sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, the
rabbis concluded that the work prohibited on
Shabbat is the same as the work of creating the sanctuary. They found 39
categories of forbidden acts, all of which are types of work that were needed
to build the sanctuary:
- Binding sheaves
- Shearing wool
- Washing wool
- Beating wool
- Dyeing wool
- Making two loops
- Weaving two threads
- Separating two threads
- Sewing two stitches
- Salting meat
- Curing hide
- Scraping hide
- Cutting hide up
- Writing two letters
- Erasing two letters
- Tearing a building down
- Extinguishing a fire
- Kindling a fire
- Hitting with a hammer
- Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an
object in the public domain.
(Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)
All of these tasks are prohibited, as well as any task that operates by the
same principle or has the same purpose. In addition, the rabbis have prohibited
handling any implement that is intended to perform one of the above purposes
(for example, a hammer, a pencil or a match) unless the tool is needed for a
permitted purpose (using a hammer to crack nuts when nothing else is available)
or needs to be moved to do something permitted (moving a pencil that is sitting
on a prayer book), or in certain other limited circumstances. Objects that may
not be handled on Shabbat are referred to as "muktzeh," which means, "that
which is set aside," because you set it aside (and don't use it unnecessarily)
The rabbis have also prohibited travel, buying and selling, and other weekday
tasks that would interfere with the spirit of Shabbat. The use of electricity
is prohibited because it serves the same function as fire or some of the other
prohibitions, or because it is technically considered to be "fire."
The issue of the use of an automobile on Shabbat, so often argued by
non-observant Jews, is not really an issue at all for observant Jews. The
automobile is powered by an internal combustion engine, which operates by
burning gasoline and oil, a clear violation of the
Torah prohibition against kindling a fire. In
addition, the movement of the car would constitute transporting an object in
the public domain, another violation of a Torah prohibition, and in all
likelihood the car would be used to travel a distance greater than that
permitted by rabbinical prohibitions. For all these reasons, and many more, the
use of an automobile on Shabbat is clearly not permitted.
As with almost all of the commandments, all of these Shabbat restrictions can
be violated if necessary to save a life.
A Typical Shabbat
At about 2PM or 3PM on Friday afternoon, observant Jews leave the office to
begin Shabbat preparations. The mood is much like preparing for the arrival of
a special, beloved guest: the house is cleaned, the family bathes and dresses
up, the best dishes and tableware are set, a festive meal is prepared. In
addition, everything that cannot be done during Shabbat must be set up in
advance: lights and appliances must be set (or timers placed on them, if the
household does so), the light bulb in the refrigerator must be removed or
unscrewed, so it does not turn on when you open it, and preparations for the
remaining Shabbat meals must be made.
like all Jewish days, begins at sunset, because in the story of creation in
Genesis Ch. 1, you will notice that it says, "And there was evening, and there
was morning, one day." From this, we infer that a day begins with evening, that
is, sunset. For the precise time when Shabbat begins and ends in your area,
consult the list of candle lighting times provided by the
Orthodox Union, by
or by any Jewish calendar.
Shabbat candles are lit and a blessing is recited no later than eighteen
minutes before sunset. This ritual, performed by the
woman of the house, officially marks the beginning
of Shabbat. Two candles are lit, representing the two commandments: zakhor
(remember) and shamor (observe), discussed above.
The family then attends a brief evening service (45 minutes - that's brief by
Jewish standards - see Jewish Liturgy).
After services, the family comes home for a festive, leisurely dinner. Before
dinner, the man of the house recites Kiddush, a prayer over wine sanctifying
Shabbat. The usual prayer for eating bread is recited over two loaves of
challah, a sweet, eggy bread shaped in a braid.
The family then eats dinner. Although there are no specific requirements or
customs regarding what to eat, meals are generally stewed or slow cooked items,
because of the prohibition against cooking during Shabbat. (Things that are
mostly cooked before Shabbat and then reheated or kept warm are OK).
After dinner, the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. Although this
is done every day, on Shabbat, it is done in a leisurely manner with many
By the time all of this is completed, it may be 9PM or later. The family has an
hour or two to talk or study Torah, and then go to sleep.
The next morning Shabbat services begin around 9AM and continue until about
noon. After services, the family says kiddush again and has another leisurely,
festive meal. A typical afternoon meal is cholent, a very slowly cooked stew.
My recipe is below. By the time birkat ha-mazon is done,
it is about 2PM. The family studies Torah for a while, talks, takes an
afternoon walk, plays some checkers, or engages in other leisure activities. A
short afternoon nap is not uncommon. It is traditional to have a third meal
before Shabbat is over. This is usually a light meal in the late afternoon.
Shabbat ends at nightfall, when three stars are visible, approximately 40
minutes after sunset. At the conclusion of Shabbat, the family performs a
concluding ritual called Havdalah (separation, division). Blessings are recited
over wine, spices and candles. Then a blessing is recited regarding the
division between the sacred and the secular, between Shabbat and the working
days, etc. For details, see Havdalah Home Ritual.
As you can see, Shabbat is a very full day when it is properly observed, and
very relaxing. You really don't miss being unable to turn on the TV, drive a
car or go shopping.
Recipe for Cholent
Cholent is a traditional Shabbat dish, because it is designed to be cooked very
slowly. It can be started before Shabbat and is ready to eat for lunch the next
day. The name "cholent" supposedly comes from the French words "chaud lent"
meaning "hot slow." If French seems like a strange source for the name of a
traditional Jewish dish, keep in mind that many of the ancestors of
Ashkenazic Jews traveled from
Israel to Germany and Russia by way of France.
- 2 pounds fatty meat (I use stewing beef, but brisket is more common)
- 2 cups dry beans (navy beans, great northern beans, pintos, limas are
- 1 cup barley
- 6 medium potatoes
- 2 medium onions
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 3 tablespoons oil
- garlic, pepper and paprika to taste
- water to cover
Soak the beans and barley until they are thoroughly softened. Sprinkle the
flour and spices on the meat and brown it lightly in the oil. Cut up the
potatoes into large chunks. Slice the onions. Put everything into a Dutch oven
and cover with water. Bring to a boil on the stove top, then put in the oven at
250 degrees before Shabbat begins. Check it in the morning, to make sure there
is enough water to keep it from burning but not enough to make it soggy. Other
than that, leave it alone. By lunch time Shabbat afternoon, it is ready to eat.
This also works very well in a crock pot on the low setting, but be careful not
to put in too much water!
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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