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What is Shabbat?

Last updated: 2003-08-22

Because Shabbat is a day of rest, it is traditional not to perform any work on this day. Work has been defined broadly over the centuries so as to prohibit a wide range of activities among people who are very observant. For example, the Biblical prohibition on the creation of fire on Shabbat has come to be defined among the Orthodox and the very observant to extend to a prohibition on turning on light switches or electrical appliances. Other activities from which it is traditional to refrain on Shabbat include carrying, plowing, reaping, baking, dyeing wool, sewing, slaughtering animals, driving a car, or anything that involves the creation, production, or transformation of an object. Shabbat is a central part of the Jewish family and Jewish life. It is a time for families and friends to gather for meals, prayer, and relaxation together. Because all Jewish holidays begin in the evening, Shabbat begins at nightfall on Friday evening and ends approximately 24 hours later, or nightfall on Saturday. Friday night allows for people to gather for the Friday night meal, a meal that often includes singing and sometimes dancing. The traditions associated with Shabbat range from the lighting of the candles just before sunset on Friday, to the blessings over the wine and bread on Friday evening, to the third meal or Shalosh Seudot, to the observance of Havdalah on Saturday night as the Shabbat departs. One of the most important customs is the setting of the Shabbat table, usually adorned with a white tablecloth, two Challahs, usually covered with a beautiful Challah Cover covering, a Kiddush Cup and Shabbat Candlesticks, symbolizing our welcoming of the royalty of Shabbat. Themes: As mentioned above, the main theme of Shabbat is rest and relaxation along with spiritual rejuvenation. Equally important is the idea that Shabbat is different from all other days of the week. Shabbat is the day where one is supposed to refrain from doing the things that they normally do on all other days and to do things that are different. While this undoubtedly includes work, this also can include other actions, such as worrying about your job or thinking about an argument you may have had with a neighbour. Symbols: There are many symbols that are associated with Shabbat - not the least of which are the lighting of the candles, the Kiddush Cup, Handwashing, Challah and Havdalah. These are the basic symbols that represent Shabbat and really help provide a spiritual connection to all Jews around the world. Candle lighting -- Shabbat is generally considered to begin with the lighting of the candles followed with the prayer over the candles. Kiddush -- The Kiddush (sanctification) or the prayer over the wine is then recited. The person reciting the Kiddush then takes a sip and then distributes wine to everyone at the table. The wine is placed in a Kiddush cup and usually distributed through smaller cups. The person reciting the Kiddush will pour a small amount from the larger cup into smaller cups and pass the small cups around so that all persons at the table may partake. Handwashing -- At this point, persons will go and wash their hands Netilat Yadayim (Handwashing), which is intended to endow the meal with spirituality. Many people use special Handwashing Bowls, some of which have two sides to them to make the pouring of the water easier. Challah -- usually two Challahs are placed on Challah Boards upon the table. These Challahs are covered with either white Challah Covers or more decorative or ornamental covers. A special Challah Knife is used to cut the Challah and a piece of the Challah is distributed to everyone at the table. Havdalah - At the conclusion of Shabbat is the Havdalah service, usually right after sundown on Saturday night. During this ceremony, people gather to say good-bye to Shabbat by lighting a special braided, multi-wicked candle, drinking wine and smelling sweet spices from spice boxes. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you work and do all your tasks. But the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. You shall do no manner of work... For in six days, God made heaven, earth and sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11) Biblical law forbids us to work on Shabbat. While the Torah does not define which labors are forbidden, the rabbis took it upon themselves to do so in the Mishna. There are thirty-nine forbidden forms of work. As noted above, these include, plowing, reaping, slaughtering an animal, baking, carrying, dyeing wool, weaving, etc. The last of these is that we are forbidden to carry an object from a person's private dwelling to another. However, we are allowed to carry things within our own dwelling. (As a result, in many communities, Jews would not be allowed to push their babies in baby carriages to go to Synagogue because they are carrying a baby from their private dwelling to that of another. The Rabbis have a found a way around this by "enclosing" the neighborhood by tying an "Eruv" around the boundaries of the neighborhood - -therefore, one is technically within a dwelling and therefore allowed to carry things.). Additionally, one must avoid doing anything on Shabbat that could lead to work - i.e. carrying money. As a result, anything that can be used, money, a hammer, etc., also cannot be handled. These items are referred to as "Muk-tze." History: We are commanded to observe Shabbat by the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments and this is repeated throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, we are reminded of the Ten Commandments that Shabbat is a day of rest for masters and servants and as a day commemorating our release from bondage in Egypt. Exodus 31:16-17 states that "the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath throughout the generations for a perpetual covenant . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested. The observance of Shabbat is predicated on two main ideas: the first is that God created the heavens and earth in six days and rested on the seventh. As a result, our observance of Shabbat recognizes God as the creator of all things. Second, Shabbat commemorates the exodus out of Egypt where we were slaves. God gave us the freedom from bondage and we became independent people. Shabbat is a way to reconfirm this freedom. Miscellaneous: While Shabbat is one of the holiest days of the year, even the strictest of Shabbat laws falls to the side when a person's life is in danger. The principle - "Pikkuah Nefesh" - or the saving of one's life overrides all observances of Shabbat. That is why doctors are allowed to work on Shabbat. We light candles to mark the onset of Shabbat, every Friday evening, symbolizing our welcoming into the home the expansive warmth and light that accompany Shabbat and the holidays. Tradition dictates that candles be lit roughly eighteen minute before sunset, which is the time that, according to Jewish law, the new day actually begins. By lighting the candles ahead of the sunset and the new day, we borrow time from the work week and extend the time of Shabbat. It is traditional to light the candles, cover your eyes, and then recite the blessing (Baruch Atoh Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Asher Kidshanu B’Mitzvotav V’Tzivanu L’Hadlik Ner Shel Shabbat) It is customary to light at least a pair of candles. Many people light more than two (either with multiple candlesticks or a candelabrum), some following the custom of lighting one candle for each family member and others finding another symbolism in a given number, such as seven (a Kabbalist custom). Although the mother of a family or the women present customarily light the candles, it is a household requirement. A man living alone or away from home should light the candles and say the blessing over them. Similarly, in the absence of a woman or when a woman is too ill to do so, the men present are required to do so. The candles should be lit in the dining room where the Shabbat dinner will take place in order to honor the Shabbat by brightening the festive meal. Overview - Havdalah, which translates as "separation," is the ceremony by which Shabbat ends on Saturday evening. Through the Havdalah ceremony, we make the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week with blessings over wine, spices, and light: wine to signify the sanctity of the day, fragrant spices to signify the hope for a week filled with sweetness, and light to signify the hope for a week of brightness and joy. Tradition - It is customary for everyone present gathers around to light the Havdalah candle, often a braided, multi-wicked candle (although two ordinary candles with touching flames will suffice). After an introductory blessing, the Havdalah ceremony consists of a blessing over wine, a symbol of the waning holiness of Shabbat, a blessing over aromatic spices, and a blessing over the light of the flames. Customarily, those present hold their fingers to the reflected light of the candle -- some say to make use of the light, which would be prohibited on Shabbat, while others explain this custom as a demonstration of clean fingers signifying that no work has been performed on Shabbat. Havdalah then concludes with a blessing over the differentiation between the holiness of the Shabbat and the beginning of the work week. It is traditional for someone present to drink most of the wine and then extinguish the candle by pouring the remaining wine over it into a dish. It is also an old custom to dip fingers into the wine dish and then touch the eyelids and inner pockets to invoke a blessing for the week. Symbols - The most important symbols of the Havdalah ceremony are the braided Havdalah candle and the spice box, which holds the sweet smelling spices that help us to retain the memory of the sweetness of Shabbat. A traditional Havdalah set includes a Kiddush Cup, a Braided Candle, a Spice Box, and a container or plate (Havdalah Plate) to hold all of these items. The Spice Box can be a container of any kind and should be filled with fragrant spices. Although Jewish law does dictate which type of spice should be used, it is traditional to use a spice that gives off a sweet smell, such as cloves. Spice Boxes are usually very ornate in design. One of the reasons given for the sweet smell of the spice is that it is used to offset the sadness that one feels as Shabbat departs. The Braided Candle, often multi-colored, with three wicks that come together at the top, fulfills the Havdalah blessing, which refers to God as the creator of the "illuminations" of fire (Meorei Ha'Eish) using the plural form. Halakhah -The meaning behind Havdalah is to distinguish, separate, differentiate, between Shabbat and the other six days of the week, marking off the holiness and the joy that make Shabbat special among the days of the week. History - The origin of the Havdalah ceremony has been attributed to the men of the Great Assembly in the fourth or fifth century B.C.E. Miscellaneous - One superstition calls for the person who holds the candle up for the Havdalah service to hold it up as high as he or she can because the height of the candle is supposed to signify how tall the holder's partner will be. Another custom is to fill the Havdalah cup to the point of overflowing, in the hope that the week to come will bring an abundance of goodness and to show that we feel at ease materially, not skimping on the wine out of concern for its economic value. Jewish Life Cycle is brought to you in association with AllThingsJewish.com (c) AllThingsJewish.com