What is Shabbat?
Shabbat is a weekly 25 hour observance that lasts from just before sundown each Friday until nightfall on Saturday . Shabbat is one of Judaism’s most distinct practices, as well as one of its most pervasive and long lasting gifts to the Jewish people. Shabbat is more than just a day off; it is a day of physical and spiritual delights, a day that is meant to illuminate certain fundamental concepts in the traditional Jewish perception of the world .
Themes and Theology
The Torah describes Shabbat as the “pinnacle of creation in the universe”, and states that the observance of Shabbat is a reminder of the purpose of the world and man’s purpose in the world. Additionally, Shabbat serves as a commemoration of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. By setting aside one day as a rest and recoup from the pressure and demands of one’s day to day affairs, man is reaffirming his dedication to the God whom rescued Israel from the Egyptian oppression. Indeed, this notion is eloquently portrayed in Jewish liturgy as “a day of joy, a sanctuary from travails, and even a foretaste of the perfect world that will someday be attained.”
History and Development
Shabbat has its origins in the Torah, where it is most notable as a day of complete cessation from all creative labor. The prophetic tradition have also portrayed Shabbat as a day of pleasure. The Rabbis have codified the parameters of “creative labor” in a complex series of restrictions on a wide range of creative activities. The Rabbis have also proscribed meals and ceremonies for every part of the day.
A central Shabbat theme is that Shabbat observance is centered around the home. The entire family participates in preparations for Shabbat. In fact, in some households, preparations for Shabbat may begin as early as Tuesday or Wednesday evening! The lady of the house prepares a beautiful feast in honor of Shabbat and the rest of the family assists in tidying up the house. As the sun sets, the wife greets the Shabbat by lighting two candles. This special candle lighting ceremony represents the spiritual illumination that descends upon the house as Shabbat arrives. When the husband arrives home from synagogue, the entire family gets situated around the table and they sing Shalom Aleichem, a special liturgy welcoming the Shabbat. The husband then says Kiddush, a blessing recited over wine which officially recognizes and welcomes the sanctity of Shabbat. Shabbat meals are an opportunity to sing, study, and celebrate with family and guests, and of course, to dine on fantastic Shabbat delicacies.
In the Community
Shabbat observance in the public sphere revolves around the synagogue. The entire community welcomes Shabbat with the lively Kabbalat Shabbat service. The ordinary prayer services are enhanced with special melodies and the familiar prayers are supplemented with beautifully poetic passages that extol God for bestowing upon us the divine gift of Shabbat. On Saturday morning, the Torah is taken out and a cantor reads the weekly Torah portion is read, along with along with the haftorah, a passage from the prophets. Finally, the community bids farewell to Shabbat in a soulful ceremony called havdalah.
What are the laws of Shabbat?
Shabbat is called the “day of rest.” As such, all work and labor is forbidden on Shabbat. However, the term “work” is not to be understood in its literal sense. Rather, the Rabbis teach us that any sort of creative labor is prohibited on Shabbat. Any other activity, regardless of how physical of grueling it might be, is not considered “work” with regards to Shabbat.
The Talmud explains that an action is considered creative labor (and thus is prohibited on Shabbat) if the action was one that was required to build the Mishkan . There is a list of 39 creative actions that were used in the construction of the Mishkan. These 39 actions are form rough categories of prohibited creative labor. Additionally, the Talmud teaches us that an action may be considered a subcategory of on the “Big 39” if the action is similar to one of the 39 listed.
Some common examples include:
- Cooking: The action of cooking is on the main list of creative labors that are forbidden on Shabbat. When one cooks, one is applying heat to an item (such as food) and changing the item. Therefore, any action which requires one to apply heat to an item in order to change the item would be prohibited. (An example of this would be an iron on patch.)
- Lighting a fire: Lighting and extinguishing a fire is a primary form of creative labor. As such, any activity which requires the lighting and/or extinguishing a fire is prohibited. One example of this starting a car. By starting a car, one activates the spark plugs, thereby lighting (and extinguishing) a spark. Therefore, starting a car is a subcategory of lighting a fire and is prohibited.
- Ripping: By ripping an item, one is creating two new items. Thus, ripping toilet paper on Shabbat is prohibited.
- Some activities ado not fall within the scope of the 39 primary prohibited actions but are still prohibited. Some common examples include:
- Handling money: Since one has no use for money on Shabbat, it is prohibited to handle money on Shabbat.
- Watering plants or picking flowers: Shabbat is the day the God completed the creation of the world. Accordingly, destroying a plant or artificially sustaining a plant (by watering it) is an indication that man is the master over the world, thereby disrespecting the omnipotence of God.
What is a Parsha?
The Torah is divided into 54 portions. Each portion is called a parsha. One portion is read aloud in the synagogue every week on Saturday morning (i.e. the weekly Torah portion).
What is a D’var Torah?
A d’var torah (plural: divrei torah) usually refers to an inspiring or meaningful message related to the weekly Parsha. A d’var torah may include a story or an anecdote which helps the speaker reach his point. People share divrei torah at Shabbat meals or any other Shabbat gathering.
Shabbat Guest Etiquette
- It is customary (but not obligatory) to bring a gift to your Shabbat host. Flowers, wine, kosher candy, or cake are all appropriate gifts. (If you are bringing wine, please check to make sure the wine is mevushal. Ask your rabbi for more information.)
- Notify your host in advance if you have any dietary restrictions. Your host would prefer to put a little extra effort to accommodate you than to watch you starve at their Shabbat table!
- Dress modestly to respect your host’s sensibilities.
- Ask questions if you do not understand something.
- Help around the house. Even if it looks like everything is under control, it is appropriate to offer to help while you are waiting for the Shabbat meal to begin.
- Be sure to thank your host before you leave. While it is nice to say a quick thank you as you are walking out the door, it is much more polite to articulate your appreciation for the accommodations, the delicious food, and even how adorable the children are! Additionally, next time you see your host, be sure to express how much you enjoyed Shabbat.
A Brief Guide to a Typical Shabbat
The lady of the house will light two candles approximately 18 minutes before sunset on Friday evening to welcome in Shabbat. Although it is customary to light two candles, some women have the custom to light an additional candle for each member of the house. The lady will also check all of the lights in the house to make sure that the necessary lights are on before Shabbat. All lights will remain untouched until after Shabbat ends.
The husband and the boys go to synagogue to pray the evening service, Mincha, and the special Shabbat nighttime service, Maariv.
The family gathers around the table to eat the Shabbat feast.
- The head of household says the Kiddush blessing over wine.
- The family and guests washes their hands before eating bread.
- Everyone remains silent. The host recites the blessing over two complete loaves of challah bread. The host then cuts up the bread and passes the pieces around for each guest.
- The feast! Everyone enjoys the Shabbat meal. The wife usually serves the food. Someone will share a d’var Torah.
- Many families sing z’mirot, special Shabbat songs during the Shabbat mean. The lyrics can be found in a bencher.
- When the meal is completed, everyone will recite the Birchat HaMazon, or the Grace After the Meal. The first paragraph is usually sang together and the rest of Birchat HaMazon is recited silently. The host will usually provide a bencher, or a small booklet that contains the Birchat HaMazon. Many hosts will also have a bencher that has an English translation or English transliteration. Make sure to recite the special paragraph for Shabbat.
The Friday night meal is complete.
Shabbat Morning: The family goes to the synagogue to pray Shacharit, the morning prayer, and Musaf, the extra Shabbat prayer.
The family returns home and sits together for Shabbat lunch. Lunch is conducted in the same general manner as the nighttime feast.
After Shabbat lunch, the family and their guests simply shmooze, learn Torah, or sleep.
As the sun begins to set, the family goes to synagogue to pray Mincha, the evening prayer.
The family then returns home to partake in seuda shelishit, or the “Third Meal.” Once again, the third meal is conducted in the same general manner as the previous two meals.
When the meal is over, the family once again returns to the synagogue to pray maariv, the evening prayers.
The family returns home, recites Havdalah, and bids farewell to Shabbat.