Each Friday evening, as the sun sets across the world, Jews begin their celebration of Shabbat.
The Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, is the most important day of the week and the only Jewish holiday listed in the Ten Commandments. Shabbat begins at sundown each Friday and ends approximately one hour after sundown, or when three stars are visible in the night sky, on Saturday. Shabbat is a day unlike any other during the week. It is a time for reflection, prayer, solitude, friends, family and special time of connection between people, God and the universe. The word Shabbat comes from the root shin-bet-tav which means "to cease, end, or rest." On Shabbat, we greet friends and family by saying, "Shabbat Shalom." This is the main idea behind Shabbat—peace and love between us and all of creation.
A Day of Rest?
The observance of Shabbat is rooted in two separate but related commandments: Zachor, To Remember and Shamor, To Observe or Guard. On Shabbat, we remember and acknowledge that God is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. In six days, God created the universe, and, on the seventh day, He rested. On Shabbat, we emulate our Creator by refraining from certain types of work. We also remember and celebrate the Jewish people's Exodus from Egypt. Each Shabbat, we experience a modern exodus as we are freed from the constraints of everyday life and turn our focus towards family, friends, learning and God. Shamor, or observe, refers to the many laws associated with Shabbat. We must be careful not to violate the Sabbath and take extra precautions to that end.
We have all heard people describe Shabbat as a day of rest. We know that one is forbidden to do work, but what does "work" mean? For instance, one is forbidden to turn on a light or drive a car on Shabbat. But we would hardly consider these things work. From the other side, activities such as learning or serving a big meal can be a lot of hard work, yet they are permitted on Shabbat.
How do we reconcile these two things and what does it mean to rest on Shabbat? The answer goes back to the time when the Jews wandered the desert before entering the land of Israel. There are 39 categories of activity, or melachah, that we are forbidden from performing on Shabbat. These are the same types of work performed during the building of the mishcan, the traveling sanctuary the Jews used to worship. Some of these activities include baking, sewing, plowing, grinding, tearing, building, kindling a fire and writing. On Shabbat, all of these tasks are prohibited along with those tasks that operate by the same principle.
Rabbi David Woznica, former director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, offers a wonderful example. On Saturday morning, if one wants to go to synagogue, what is easier—to drive three miles or to walk three miles? Surely the answer is the former; it is more work to walk three miles than it is to drive. And yet, driving is forbidden on Shabbat while walking is permitted. The reason for this is that driving a car involves creating. When we turn the key in the ignition we create a spark that starts the car. Walking, however, does not interfere with the natural process.
In his book, Day of Eternity, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan defines work, in the Sabbath sense, as "an act that shows man's mastery over the world by means of his intelligence and skill." Accordingly, rest is defined as "not interfering with nature nor exhibiting mastery over it. It is a state of peace between man and nature." The rituals of Shabbat enable us to enjoy the true meaning behind Shabbat as they force us to leave nature untouched.
Yom Shekulo Shabbat
In the Talmud, the messianic age is referred to as Yom Shekulo Shabbat—a day when all will be Sabbath. In this way, the Sabbath is rehearsal for the future world. Each week, we have the glorious opportunity to partake in the world to come.
Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles. As the time of sundown varies, Shabbat starts at a different time each Friday. Check our calendar for weekly candle lighting times. Traditionally, the woman lights the candles while the man is at synagogue, but anyone in the family can partake in the Shabbat candle lighting ceremony. At least two candles should be lit, though many households customarily light one additional candle for each child they have been blessed with.
Netilat Yadayim and Hamotzi
On Shabbat, we eat special braided bread called challah. It is customary to have two loaves of challah and to place them on a board or a plate and cover them with a cloth or napkin until it is time to recite the hamotzi blessing. Before eating the challah, we wash our hands and say a blessing. The process of hand washing, in Hebrew called netilat yadayim, is a religious ritual intended to endow the meal with spirituality (it is not done for hygienic purposes—no soap is needed).
Jewish Continuity programs at 92Y are supported by the Dorot Foundation. For more information about Shabbat or its observance, contact us at 212.415.5767 / email.