An Introduction to Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath)
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California
The institution of Shabbat, the Sabbath, is perhaps the greatest gift the Jewish people has bestowed upon humankind. According to the Torah (the five Books of Moses), there are two reasons for observing this unique day of rest:
1. Creation: The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis relate that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh day. In the Kiddush (sanctification) prayer chanted on Friday night, Shabbat is called zikaron l'ma-asay v'raysheet, a remembrance of the act of creation. Since God refrained from labor on the seventh day, we are bidden to do likewise. Observant Jews translate this mandate into practical observance by refraining from any act of creation or destruction on the Sabbath. Shabbat is a day devoted to rest, reflection, prayer and Torah study.
2. Exodus: The Friday evening Kiddush bestows a second name on Shabbat. In the liturgy, the Sabbath is called zaykher litziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. Slaves are not free to observe a day of no labor. Only free men and women can truly appreciate the gift of a day of rest, a day free from the intrusions and burdens of everyday life. Shabbat is a weekly reminder of the priceless gift of freedom.
In traditional Jewish homes, Sabbath preparations begin well before sunset on Friday evening. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, and Tzedakah (giving charity) are typical Friday afternoon activities. Shortly before sunset, the lighting of candles marks the transition from secular to sacred time.
In many synagogues, the Friday evening prayers are recited at dusk. This service, known as Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath), enables worshipers to return home to enjoy their Shabbat dinner at an early hour. Other Jewish congregations hold a "late" Friday evening service, often followed by an Oneg Shabbat (refreshments to enhance Sabbath joy).
The Friday evening dinner is more than a sumptuous meal. It features rituals that reflect the joy and harmony of the Sabbath: family blessings, Kiddush (blessing over wine), ritual washing of the hands, Ha-motzi (blessing over bread)), Z'mirot (Sabbath songs) and Birkat Ha-mazon (grace after the meal). These rituals, along with special foods such as Hallah (egg twist bread), help to make Friday evening a beloved family time in Jewish homes around the world.
Many Jews spend Saturday morning in the synagogue. The prayers span two services, and include the chanting of portions of the Torah and the Prophets. Upon returning home, traditional Jews repeat several of the Friday evening customs as they enjoy their Sabbath lunch. Since cooking is one of the labors prohibited on Shabbat, some people partake of foods that have been prepared beforehand and placed on a low fire before the onset of the Sabbath.
Saturday afternoon is a wonderful opportunity to study Torah, visit with family and friends, play quiet games, and even take a well-deserved nap. Late in the day, traditional Jews return to synagogue for the afternoon and evening prayer services. In between, they partake of a light meal, known as Se'udah Sh'leesheet (the third Sabbath meal).
As the stars appear in the sky, Jews chant the words of the Havdalah (separation) service, marking the transition from sacred to secular time. This beautiful service features three symbols: a cup of wine, a braided candle with multiple wicks, and a box filled with fragrant spices. Appropriate blessings and songs are recited, and then Jews greet one another with the traditional words Shavua Tov ("a good week").
One of the great modern Hebrew poets and thinkers, who went by the pen name Ahad Ha-Am ("one of the people"), wrote: "More than the people of Israel has observed Shabbat, Shabbat has preserved the people of Israel." The Sabbath is indeed a most precious legacy of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Shabbat Shalom. May you enjoy a Sabbath of harmony and peace.