For three millennia, Shabbat has been the Jewish oasis in time. Find out what’s behind this weekly day off.
Shabbat is the name for the seventh day of the week. The Torah tells us, “Six days you shall work, and the seventh day is Shabbat, for the Lord your God.” (Deut. 5:13)
In Judaism, the other days of the week (Sunday, Monday, etc.) don’t have special names of their own. Rather, we refer to these weekdays as “the first day toward Shabbat,” “the second day toward Shabbat,” etc. Each day is known only by its relation to Shabbat. In this way, we remind ourselves daily of the centrality of Shabbat.
We anticipate its arrival. We set aside special food and clothing for it. Shabbat is at the very center of Jewish consciousness. It is repeated more times than any other mitzvah in the Torah, and it is the only ritual observance which is part of the Ten Commandments.
Observant Jews will tell you that Shabbat is one of the greatest sources of inspiration. And, paradoxically, Shabbat is often the greatest hurdle to those testing the waters of Judaism.
What is it about Shabbat that makes it so important to the Jewish people, so powerful to the individual ― and yet so mystifying to those who haven’t experienced it?
Taste of the “World To Come”
The Midrash says: When the Jewish people were gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, God told them that Heaven would be their reward for keeping the commandments. The Jews asked God, “How do we know that Heaven is so great? How about a free sample to see if it’s worthwhile?” (Apparently, Jews have always been astute businessmen.)
God wasn’t upset. He knew that Heaven is where we experience the pure and unadulterated pleasure of the infinite God. So He said, “No problem. I’ll send you a sample. Shabbat.”
Thus the Sages say: Shabbat is “a taste of Heaven on Earth.” If Heaven is pure spirituality, then Shabbat is a taste of that experience.
The Two Shabbat Commandments
There are two central commandments which teach us how to observe Shabbat.
The first commandment is not to work on Shabbat. The Torah says, “Six days you shall work, and the seventh day is Shabbat to the Lord your God. [On that day] you shall not do any melacha” (Exodus 20:9). (Melacha is a type of work which we will define later.)
The second is a positive action commandment to rest on Shabbat: “And on the seventh day you shall rest” (Exodus 23:12).
One commandment is not to do any melacha, and the second commandment is to rest. But why do we need both? If the Torah tells us “not to work,” obviously we’re going to get a lot of rest and relaxation. Why would we need a second, positive action commandment telling us to rest?
The goal of Shabbat is not simply to put our feet up, get a suntan and sip cocktails.
If the Torah has to give us two separate commandments, then clearly, one is not the automatic, instantaneous result of the other. The fact that refraining from work is not sufficient to automatically include rest, implies that the “resting” we do on Shabbat must be something extra, something that goes beyond the natural outcome of not working. Apparently the goal of Shabbat is not simply to put our feet up, get a suntan and sip cocktails.
So what is the real point of these commandments?
Why “No Work” On Shabbat?
In “Breakfast of Champions,” a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, the main character of the story is in a bar one evening nursing a drink. All of a sudden, he’s consumed by anxiety. Someone he very much wants to meet, yet is somehow threatened by, has just walked into the bar and is coming closer and closer to his table. He turns to hide his face. Suddenly, he feels a tap on his shoulder. As he turns around, he comes face-to-face with the author of the book in which he is the main character.
His deepest fears have just become reality. Having cherished the hope that he is master of his own destiny, he now has to face the fact that he lives and dies by a stroke of the author’s pen.
Vonnegut’s story depicts the conflict faced by every human being.
On one hand, we all yearn to make contact with the reality of God’s existence, to be close to this All-Powerful Being Who created everything and sustains us daily.
On the other hand, we all live with the nagging fear of confronting the fact that we are not the captains of our ships. Each of us would like to be Number One. Our ego would prefer to see ourselves at the center of the universe, in total control of our own lives, our own destiny, and the world. So we try convincing ourselves that we are, and in the process we push away God.
Shabbat is a tool to ensure we don’t misunderstand our place in the universe.
Shabbat is the Jewish tool to make sure we don’t misunderstand our place in the universe. Refraining from work is the first step toward accomplishing this goal. God gave mankind the power to manipulate and change the world. Because of this, we are easily lulled into thinking that we are in control of the world.
Then comes Shabbat. Once every seven days, we step back from the world and make a statement to ourselves and humanity that we are not in charge of this world. We stop all creative work and acknowledge that it is God’s world, not ours. We can manipulate the world, but we don’t own it. God gives us clear guidelines for how we may shape the world, but it’s not ours to do with as we see fit all the time.
When we refrain from work on Shabbat, we regain clarity and understanding as to Who is the true Creator.
The Primary Goal Of Shabbat
Once we’ve extracted ourselves from the illusions of our own power and prominence (i.e. once we realize we’re not God), we free ourselves to reach out and experience the primary goal of Shabbat: getting in touch with God. While it is true that we can get in touch with God and spirituality during the week, it only happens if we make a particular effort to partake of these experiences. We have to fight off the influences of the mundane workday in order to break through to the spiritual.
On Shabbat, however, the spiritual level of the world is intensified. God immerses us in a spiritual environment, and our perception of His closeness is heightened. It’s as if the static has been lifted.
On Shabbat, as I cease to create, I no longer feel the need to compete with the world around me. I don’t drive my car, I don’t work my animal, I don’t even pluck a blade of grass. Instead of imposing our will upon the world, we are in harmony with it.
On Shabbat, rather than imposing our will on the world, we are in harmony with it.
On Shabbat, we are all kings. We take advantage of the extra spirituality infused in the Shabbat day to focus on our spiritual goals, which we express through the prayer service, the learning of Torah, festive meals, and time spent with family and friends. For one day, there is no competition. There is only flow.
This is what is referred to in the second commandment as “resting.” On Shabbat, the hard effort to get in touch with God comes naturally. The soul has what it’s seeking. It’s at rest.
Shabbat is our break. It empowers us, not to discard our workaday world, but to retain our ability to be independent from it. Shabbat gives balance and perspective to our lives and to our week. A cube, which has six sides, receives form and substance from its solid center. So too, the six days of our week are balanced by Shabbat ― the inner dimension.
The Tabernacle Connection
If we’re going to refrain from work on Shabbat, we need to know how the Torah defines “work.” The rules may surprise you: Lugging a 50-pound sack of potatoes from room to room on Shabbat is technically permissible, while flicking on a light switch is forbidden.
It is not “work” which is prohibited on Shabbat; rather it is the special category of work called melacha. This term refers to the 39 types of creative activities which were used to build the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary used by the Jews during the time of Moses and Joshua. These 39 activities include, for example, planting, cooking, and writing.
The Tabernacle was the physical place where the experience of God was more directly tangible than at any other place on earth. Similarly, Shabbat is the period of time in which God’s presence is felt more intensely than at any other time during the week. In other words, just as the Tabernacle is holiness in “space,” Shabbat is holiness in “time.”
Shabbat is an anywhere-in-the-world, expense-free vacation. No travel agent required.
On Shabbat, therefore, the activities used to build the Tabernacle are completely unnecessary, since Shabbat is already a “sanctuary in time.” Shabbat has stability and permanence that transcend the limitations of space. It’s an anywhere-in-the-world, expense-free vacation ― no travel agent required. God’s presence is with us simply by virtue of the atmosphere Shabbat brings.
This explains why on Shabbat we are not supposed to concern ourselves with any unfinished business left over from the weekday. Instead, we are supposed to feel that everything is complete. Shabbat itself marks a completion of our goals.
The Bang Of Shabbat
What is the experience of Shabbat, and how do you get in touch with it?
Imagine you’re in a room with someone who says, “I want to be able to tell if it’s light or dark in this room. How should I do that?” You say, “That’s easy. Just open your eyes and see if it’s light or dark.” He says, “You don’t understand. Anyone can do that. I want to be able to smell the difference between light and dark.” You say, “You can’t smell the difference between light and dark.” He says, “How about tasting it?” “You can’t taste the difference.” In order to tell the difference between light and dark, you have to use your eyes.”
That’s exactly the problem with Shabbat. It’s a different experience than what we may be used to. To connect with Shabbat, you have to get in touch with your sixth sense. With your soul.
At the end of Shabbat, we have a ceremony called Havdalah, which means “separation.” We make a blessing to thank God for separating between the holy and the mundane, and between light and dark.
The difference between the holy and the mundane is as clear as day and night. “Mundane” is the static and distractions of daily activities ― shopping, commuting, computing. “Holy” is the soul yearning for contact with its Creator. Your soul doesn’t want food or sleep. Your soul is nourished through spirituality, and it will not feel fulfilled until it gets it.
Shabbat is designed to facilitate the soul’s contact with spirituality ― with God. We free our attention from the pressures of the workday and focus on our spiritual goals, which are built into the fabric of the day through the prayer services, the festive meals, the learning of Torah, time spent with family and friends.
Shabbat is not only Judaism’s best spiritual tool, but historically it has also been the litmus test of whether an individual or family will remain a vibrant part of the Jewish people. The famous maxim says:
“More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.”
A true story: Bnei Brak is a city in Israel with a largely religious population. There once was a fellow living there who wasn’t a religious man, but since he lived in the area, he sent his daughter to a yeshiva. After learning for a few years in yeshiva, the daughter decided she wanted to observe the Shabbat. Since the family did not want to observe Shabbat, fights broke out every week between the parents and their daughter.
One Friday afternoon, the daughter went to the local store to buy candles for Shabbat. The storeowner, who knew that the family did not observe the Shabbat, assumed the girl wanted yahrzeit candles and gave her two of them. (Yahrzeit candles are lit in memory of the deceased on the date of his or her death.)
That night, while her parents were downstairs, the girl went quietly to her room to light the candles. After a while, her parents went to check on her. As they opened the door, they saw the yahrzeit candles burning. “Who are these for?” they asked.
“One is for Daddy,” she said, “and one is for Mommy.”
The irony of their daughter’s words hit home. Without the Shabbat, they came to realize, it’s only a matter of time before their connection to Jewish continuity would die forever. Slowly the parents began to make their way back to a stronger, more vibrant Jewish lifestyle.
A Practical Way To Start
If Shabbat seems like a daunting undertaking, remember that in Judaism it’s not “all or nothing.” Even one moment of consciously refraining from doing melacha on Shabbat is a powerful opportunity to get in touch with yourself and God.
Try it for a few hours and increase the amount of time as you feel more comfortable.
How to start? Have your friends over for Friday night dinner. Light the candles, make Kiddush, sing some songs, and share words of Torah. (You can discuss the “Portion of the Week,” or pick a topic like “Free Will” or “The Afterlife.”)
But make one rule: No outside entertainment. No radio, no television, no telephone, no internet. Try it for a few hours, and increase the amount of time as you feel more comfortable. The key is to relinquish control of the universe and get in touch with the Almighty.
Finally, here’s an exercise that can really get you in the mood. At sundown this Friday, take a minute and do the following: Clench your fists tight for 60 seconds. Then let go.
That, my friends, is Shabbat.