What is Shabbat?

Once a Week, Jews Stop, Rest, and Reflect

A woman lights Shabbat candles.
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Every week, Jews around the world of varying observances take time to rest, reflect, and enjoy on Shabbat. In fact, the Talmud says that to observe the Sabbath is equal to all of the other commandments combined! But what is this weekly observance? 

Meaning and Origins

Shabbat (שבת) translates to English as Sabbath, meaning to rest or to cease. In Judaism this specifically refers to the period of time from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown in which Jews were commanded to avoid all acts of work and kindling of fire.

The origins for Shabbat come, obviously enough, in the beginning in Genesis 2:1-3:

"The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work (melacha) that God had been doing, and God ceased [rested] on the seventh day from all the work which God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased [rested] from all the work of creation which God had done."

The importance of rest from creation is elevated later in the declaration of the commandments, or mitzvot

"Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melacha), but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God: you shall not do any work, you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days, God made heaven and earth and sea, all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore God has blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:8-11).

And in a repetition of the commandments:

"Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melacha), but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God: you shall not do any work, you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox of your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

Later, the promise of a proud heritage is presented in Isaiah 58:13-14 if the Sabbath day is properly observed. 

"If you restrain your foot because of Shabbat, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord honored, and you honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words, then, you shall delight with the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 

Shabbat is a day in which Jews are commanded to ​shamor v'zachor -- to observe and remember. The Sabbath is meant as a day of cessation, to truly appreciate what goes into work and creation. By stopping for 25 hours once every week, it's possible to appreciate so much of what we take for granted throughout the week, whether it is the ease of cooking in a microwave or oven or the ability to hop in the car and run to the grocery store. 

The 39 Melachot

Although the most basic commandment from the Torah, or Hebrew Bible, is to not work or kindle a fire, over a period of thousands of years the Sabbath has evolved and developed with the understanding of scholars and sages.

After all, the term "work" or "labor" (Hebrew, melacha) is broad and can encompass many different things to many different people (for a baker work is baking and producing food but for a policeman work is defending and enforcing the law). In Genesis the term is used for creation, while in Exodus and Deuteronomy it is used to refer to work or labor. Thus the rabbis evolved what became known as the 39 melachot, or forbidden activities, on Shabbat in order to make sure Jews were avoiding all acts of creation, work, or labor so as to not violate the Sabbath.

These 39 melachot evolved in regards to the "labor" involved in the creation of the mishkan, or tabernacle, that was built while the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness in Exodus and can be found within six categories detailed in Mishnah Shabbat 73a.

Although they might seem abstract, there are many modern examples for the 39 melachot

1. Field Work

  • Sowing
  • Plowing
  • Reaping
  • Binding Sheaves
  • Threshing
  • Winnowing
  • Selecting
  • Grinding
  • Sifting
  • Kneading
  • Baking

2. Making Material Curtains

  • Shearing Wool
  • Cleaning
  • Combing
  • Dyeing
  • Spinning
  • Stretching the Threads
  • Making Loops
  • Weaving Threads
  • Separating the Threads
  • Tying a Knot
  • Untying a Knot
  • Sewing
  • Tearing

3. Making Leather Curtains

  • Trapping
  • Slaughtering
  • Skinning
  • Tanning
  • Smoothing
  • Ruling Lines
  • Cutting

4. Making the Beams for the Mishkan

  • Writing
  • Erasing

5. Building and Breaking Down the Mishkan

  • Building
  • Breaking Down

6. Final Touches

  • Extinguishing a Fire
  • Kindling a Fire
  • Striking the Final Hammer Blow
  • Carrying (from which we derive the need for the eruv)

How To

Beyond the 39 melachot, there are many components of Shabbat observance, starting with lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday night and ending with another candle-related practice called havdalah, which separates the sacred from the profane. (A day in Judaism begins at sundown, rather than sunrise.)

Depending on individual observance, any mix-and-match approach to the following can be undertaken on Shabbat. Here is a quick chronological view of what a typical Friday and Saturday might look like.

Friday:

  • During the day Friday, Jews clean their homes and themselves from top to bottom and dress their best and decorate their tables with the cleanest linens in order to welcome the Sabbath bride (Talmud Shabbat 119a)
  • At sundown, light Shabbat candles with a ​bracha (blessing)
  • Evening prayer services (ma'ariv) at synagogue
  • Before the festive dinner, everyone at the table sings Shalom Aleichem and Aishes Chayil, followed by the the blessing of the children
  • Before the meal, the blessings of kiddush over wine and ha'motzi over challah are recited
  • The festive Shabbat meal takes place, sometimes going well into the night with singing and discussions about the weekly Torah portion (known as the parsha)

Saturday:

  • Afternoon nap or learning at synagogue or home
  • Afternoon (mincha) prayer services at synagogue
  • An informal, yet festive, third meal, called or , with ha'motzi over challah before the meal 
  • Evening prayer services (ma'ariv) at synagogue
  • Havdalah at the synagogue and/or at home roughly one hour after sundown

In some cases, on Saturday night after havdalah, another festive meal called a melavah malkah takes place to "escort" the Sabbath bride out.

Where to Begin?

If you're just taking on Shabbat for the first time, take small steps and savor each moment of rest by

  • going to a Shabbat meal 
  • turning off your mobile phone and the TV for 25 hours
  • don't spend any money for 25 hours
  • light Shabbat candles on Friday night
  • make
  • go to synagogue

If you're not sure where to start, visit Shabbat.com to find a meal with a friendly family or check out OpenShabbat.org for an event near you.