Why Is Shabbat So Central to Jewish Tradition?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Shabbat service
People are seen praying during Shabbat service at Rodef Shalom Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh, just days after the Tree of Life shooting where 11 people were killed. Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, a 25-hour "day of rest" that begins at sundown Friday evening and ends Saturday night when, according to Jewish tradition, it's dark enough to see three stars in the sky.

During Shabbat, Jewish people take time out from the busy workweek to light candles, eat a delicious meal with family and friends, perhaps attend services at the synagogue or just go for a long, leisurely walk. Shabbat is more than a "day off;" according to the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) it's a holy day blessed by God.

"In Judaism, when you wish somebody a happy Sabbath, you say 'Shabbat shalom,' which means 'Sabbath peace,'" says Rabbi Ron Isaacs, author of "Every Person's Guide to Shabbat."

"In our busy lives, it's very difficult to have even one minute of peace and tranquility, but Shabbat often did it for me," says Rabbi Isaacs, reflecting on when his children were young. "When I was sitting with my family watching two candles burn, singing songs around the dinner table, having a time when I didn't have to rush, not looking at my phone, that was very peaceful."

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Where Is Shabbat Mentioned in the Bible?

According to the famous opening lines of the book of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." He labored for six days creating the sun and moon, the land and the seas, the plants and animals and the first humans. And on the seventh day, God "rested from all his work" and he "blessed the seventh day and made it holy."

"When God blesses a day, it's a big deal," says Rabbi Isaacs, explaining that the word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew shavat (שָׁבַת), a verb meaning "to rest" or literally "to cease working."

When God introduces the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, He lays out the basic ground rules of how to observe Shabbat:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.

Later in Exodus, God calls Shabbat a "lasting covenant" and "a sign between me and the Israelites forever." He also warns that anyone who breaks or "desecrates" the Sabbath by doing work should be "cut off from their people" or even "put to death."

"I don't take that threat literally," says Rabbi Isaacs. "When the Torah uses that language — 'If you do this, you're going to die' — it's a way of making it clear that God takes Shabbat seriously and He wants you to take it seriously, too."

To show just how seriously God takes Shabbat, the Israelites received a double portion of manna on Fridays while they wandered in the desert for 40 years, so they didn't have to gather the heaven-sent food on the Sabbath, which would have qualified as work.

shabbat catering service
A worker at Treat Kosher seals a food order at the catering facility in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The catering service dedicated its kitchen facility to making and supplying kosher food for the local Orthodox Jewish community in the U.A.E., including meals for Shabbat dinners and lunches.
Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images

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Shabbat 'Rules' Are the Product of Centuries Tradition

The Torah says very little about how exactly Jewish people are supposed to observe Shabbat, but the great rabbis of the Talmudic period (roughly 70 to 500 C.E.) had plenty to say. In a thick chapter of the Talmud called "Shabbat," the ancient sages trade opinions on the subtlest minutiae of Jewish law, resulting, for example, in the 39 types of work that are forbidden on Shabbat.

No cooking, no washing, no sewing, no planting, no reaping, no burning, no extinguishing, no carrying ... it's a long list. For the most strictly observant Jews, known as Orthodox, the faithful keeping of Shabbat means not violating any of these rules. In practice, that often requires some creativity, or at least a lot of planning ahead.

For example, you can't tear paper on the Sabbath, which includes toilet paper. So Orthodox bathrooms are stocked with pre-torn sheets of toilet paper for Shabbat. You can't turn on a light on Shabbat because electricity is akin to a "spark," which is the same as fire. You know that little lightbulb inside your refrigerator that turns on when you open the door? You either need to remove that during Shabbat or buy a Shabbat-approved refrigerator that is programmed to turn off the light one day a week.

Rabbi Isaacs says that he recently bought a Shabbat-approved toothbrush out of curiosity. Technically, you wring out the wet bristles when you brush your teeth and wringing falls under the same prohibited category as washing. The Shabbat toothbrush is made with rubber bristles that don't hold water and therefore can't be "wrung" out.

In some Orthodox communities, a non-Jewish person called the "Shabbat goy" (Yiddish for "Shabbat gentile") is contracted to visit Jewish homes on the Sabbath to carry out prohibited tasks like turning on the stove or the lights.

The one exemption for all of the Shabbat laws is to save a life, says Rabbi Isaacs. Jews aren't supposed to drive or work on the Sabbath, but if a doctor needs to rush to the hospital to attend to a patient, she can both drive and work without fear of divine retribution.

It's easy to get caught up in the rules and restrictions of Shabbat and forget why those things were forbidden in the first place, says Rabbi Isaacs. "Shabbat should be a 'holy' day, which in Judaism literally means a day that is distinct and unique. We are commanded to work the other six days of the week, so what we do on the seventh day should be completely different."

In other words, all of those prohibitions are highly specific and complicated ways of saying, "please don't work." Do something special on the Sabbath. Spend more time with your family, go to the synagogue and say prayers, eat home-cooked meals and unplug from electronics. It's a day of physical rest, but also emotional and spiritual rejuvenation.

shabbat dinner
Myriam Gumerman, center, enjoys the company of her friends as they gather to celebrate the Shabbat at her home on in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Justin Merriman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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How Shabbat Is Celebrated at Home

There are two spheres of Shabbat observance: in the home and at the synagogue. At home, preparation for Shabbat might begin Friday morning by cleaning the house, preparing food for the Friday night meal (including challah, the traditional braided loaves of bread), and washing and ironing clothes to wear to the synagogue.

When the sun sets Friday night, it's time to welcome the Sabbath. In Jewish homes, two candles are lit, usually by the mother, as a prayer is recited. Some families will eat their festive meal right then, while others wait until after attending Friday night services.

Before digging into the Friday night meal, the family recites prayers to bless the challah, bless the wine (which sanctifies the Sabbath) and ritually wash their hands. After eating a sumptuous and leisurely feast, the family might sing traditional songs around the table or play games.

In Judaism, one of the purposes of Shabbat is to promote shalom bayit or "peace in the home." As families eat, play, sing and study together on both Friday and Saturday, it cultivates a greater sense of family unity and Jewish identity.

In his book "The Sabbath, Its Meaning for Modern Man" the Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that "strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn't suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise." For busy families that spend the rest of the week running from school to work to activities, the slow pace and simple joys of the Sabbath can feel like that taste of paradise.

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Shabbat Observance in the Synagogue

Shabbat is also a chance for the Jewish community to gather in prayer and study. Rabbi Isaacs says that while you can certainly pray or read the Torah in your home, Judaism has always taught the importance of worshipping as a community.

"That's why you need at least 10 people to hold Shabbat services," says Rabbi Isaacs, referring to a minyan, the minimum number of attendees required to recite certain prayers in the synagogue.

There are three services held during Shabbat: the Friday night "welcoming" service (Kabbalat Shabbat), the Saturday morning service in which the Torah is unscrolled and read, and a "farewell" Saturday afternoon service called Havdalah. Depending on the synagogue (the major branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) the service may be mostly in Hebrew or mostly in English.

Since the Sabbath is meant to be a day of joy, Rabbi Isaacs says, most synagogue services are also followed by snacks or desserts, offering a chance for the congregation to socialize. "The Sabbath is an opportunity to hang around, talk to friends, sing some songs and eat some cake."

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Shabbat Is a Core Piece of Jewish Identity

In the long history of the Jewish people, Shabbat observance became especially important during the Babylonian exile, when Jews lived outside of the Holy Land and had to maintain their traditions and sense of identity. One could argue that Shabbat continues to serve the same purpose — a day set aside to remember and celebrate the Jewish people's unique relationship with God.

"Shabbat, of all of the holidays, has kept the Jewish people together," says Rabbi Isaacs, whether you observe all of the rules and regularly attend synagogue, or you simply light candles Friday night and temporarily put aside the concerns of the week.

shabbat candles
It is customary for women and girls to wave their hands and then cover their eyes when reciting the blessing upon the Shabbat candles.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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