Welcome to this week’s episode of Better Know a Jewish Holiday: Shabbat!! The fightin’ day of rest!!
Now, unlike just about every other Jewish holiday, shabbat doesn’t just come around once a year, we get shabbat every week!
First, the basics. Shabbat starts every week at sundown on Friday and concludes Saturday night when there are three stars in the sky.
As noted above, shabbat is considered a “day of rest” and is meant to feel distinctly different from the rest of the week. Read on to find out how we got this shabbat thing in the first place, what the rules are for shabbat, and how we celebrate:
Now, why do we have a holiday every week? Great question! It all goes back to the beginning of time. According to Jewish tradition, God created the world in six days.
And the end of the sixth day, God took a peek at everything God had created and saw that it was all very good.
And then God was all like: “Wow, world creation is really hard work, boy do I need a shluf!” (yiddish for ‘nap’) So the bible tells us that on the seventh day, God rested.
Fast forward a number of years and everyone had forgotten how important it was to take a day off. People were running around the world overworking themselves.
Not only that, but slavery was all the rage and the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. So they didn’t really have any say over they own time or if they ever got a break.
As you might remember from Better Know Passover God eventually came and redeemed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. There were plagues, it got messy, moving on.
Once the Jews are out in the desert, God starts to lay down the laws. There are a lot of them. The Israelites are basically learning to build a society from scratch so they’re learning everything from how property transfer should work to moral codes to what sacrifices God expects from them to the fact that a woman is not allowed to intercede in a fight between two men by grabbing the testicles of one of the combatants:
Pardon my tangent, there’s just so much fun stuff in Torah. Anyway, quite a number of the commandments given to the Jews deal with this “shabbat” thing. For the first time, there’s a day that’s mandated as a day of rest, and we Jews take our rest VERY seriously.
Shabbat is one of the 10 Commandments, which means it’s obvs v important, but what many people don’t know is the 10 Commandments actually appear twice in the Bible.
The first time, the commandment is to “Remember the Shabbat” and the second time the commandment is to “Keep/Observe the Shabbat.”
Good question. The rabbis interpret the command “Remember” to mean we have to perform all of the positive commandments for shabbat (you must do this, you must do that), while “Keep/Observe” is the commandment to NOT do all of the negative commandments.
It’s important to mention here that different Jews remember and observe shabbat in different ways. What I’ll be explaining here are some of the traditional practices for shabbat but three Jews will have five different ideas about what shabbat should look like exactly.
So, the positive commandments, what are the things we’re supposed to do on shabbat? Well, they include: lighting candles to mark the beginning of the holiday, saying a blessing over wine, having three delicious meals, attending synagogue on Friday night and/or Saturday morning, hearing a reading from the Torah (first five books of the Bible), RESTING, and enjoying ourselves.
It should also be noted that the commandment to rest also extends to everyone in the household including animals and servants. The idea is not just that the wealthy would have a day off but that every single person would have a day of rest.
But what about the negative commandments, what are Jews not supposed to do on Shabbat? Well, in the Torah we read that the Jews were not allowed to continue their work building the tabernacle (like a traveling tent-temple thing) on Shabbat. There are 39 types of work outlined for the building of that structure, so all our current laws are derivative from those original 39.
Basically it means that there’s a lot of stuff that’s not allowed. Traditional Jews do not drive cars on shabbat or turn on lights (these prohibitions come from the original prohibition against lighting a fire). Jews do not traditionally cook on shabbat, don’t spend money, and they don’t carry things from place to place.
The full list of things we’re not allowed to do on shabbat fills up many books.
These “don’ts” were instituted to prevent people from doing work and to ensure that they rested. Think of it this way: All the things we’re not allowed to do are intended to give us the space to do all the things we never get enough time to do: talk to people face to face, spend time with loved ones, read a good book, a newspaper, maybe even The New Yorker.
Shabbat ends with an amazing ceremony called “havdallah” which literally means separation. We light a candle with multiple wicks, smell sweet spices, drink more wine, and prepare ourselves to move into the coming week.
If you have questions about specific shabbat do’s and don’ts please feel free to ask in the comments below and I’ll get back to you!
In the meantime, happy resting!
Upon further reflection, while this post does cover the basics of shabbat and its observance, it fails to capture the spiritual essence of what this day really means. Abraham Joshua Heschel called shabbat "a palace in time" and when you take this day out of your week to rest, to reflect, to be with friends and family, it can truly change the character not only of Friday night and Saturday but the rest of the week as well.
In the future I will try to craft another post that does shabbat justice in all of its world-changing abilities.
About the Jew
The Jew is an Uber driving, Bar Mitzvah DJing, yoga teaching ex-journalist from Ann Arbor, Michigan who attends rabbi School in NYC.