Shabbat Shalom! Awesome news alert: No matter when you read this article, you are no further than six days away from the Best. Day. Off. Ever! A commanded rest day, Shabbat is celebrated every single Friday evening right before sunset to Saturday one hour after sundown.
Shabbat, Hebrew for “cease” or “rest,” commemorates that after six complete days of creating the world, God sets aside the seventh day to rest. A modern adaptation of this idea can be found in the names of the days of the week in Israel: Sunday or Yom Rishon (Hebrew for “First Day”) begins the work week, Monday or Yom Sheni (“Second Day”) comes next, and so on. Saturday, the seventh and last day of the week, is called Shabbat. Cool, right?
You may already be familiar with the traditional Shabbat rituals: light candles, sip wine, eat challah, go to services, study Torah, gather with friends, relax and take a moment to enjoy this beautiful life we are given. But, there are many surprising and fascinating facts about this super holy holiday. So, get out your candle sticks, start kneading that dough, answer the door for the Shabbat Dinosaur and enjoy this deeper dive into all things Shabbat, cause it will be here again before you know it!
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1. Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday (yes, even over Yom Kippur)
Because we celebrate 52 Shabbats per year (impressive math skills, I know!), it may seem reasonable to forget that the holiest Jewish holiday is commemorated once a week. Yom Kippur is sometimes referred to as the “Sabbaths of Sabbaths” and argued by some rabbis as perhaps more sacred than Shabbat, but that’s actually a minority opinion. Not only is Shabbat the only holiday to be obligated in the Ten Commandments, there are countless Jewish scholars who argue that the gift of Shabbat is everlasting: Maimonides stated that keeping Shabbat was equivalent in observance of all of the 613 mitzvahs recorded in the Torah. Cultural Zionist and writer Ahad Ha’am famously said that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel likened Shabbat to “a sanctuary in time.” Convinced yet?
2. Shabbat is the first Jewish holiday mentioned in the Torah, in the very first portion!
I told you it’s important!! Shabbat is the first holiday among Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot to be recorded in the Torah. In Genesis, the very first book of the Torah, we read that God creates the world one day at a time, and after six days of creation (aka work), “God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.” On the seventh day, instead of working, God rests and declares that all living creatures also take the day off.
Shabbat is even observed by the Israelites in the Torah. Our people have been resting on the seventh day for over 3500 years, so why are we still so tired?
3. The same can’t be said for Shabbat rituals…
Interestingly enough, the three synonymous rituals of Shabbat — kindling Shabbat candles, blessing the Kiddush cup of wine and eating challah — are not found in the Torah. They are, however, influenced by Torah verses, although some are quite a stretch!
Precisely 18 minutes before the sun sets on Friday evening, two white, single wick candles are first lit and then blessed. This serves as the official ushering in of our 25-hour rest day. One candle is lit to commemorate a verse from Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath,” and the other is from Deuteronomy, “Keep the Sabbath.” Most Jewish scholars agree, however, that the true reason for candles honored the priority of “shalom bayit” (peace in the home). Shalom Bayit is exactly what it sounds like: imagine trying to enjoy a family meal in complete darkness; even eating matzah ball soup could be dangerous!
The wine (ironically) is for remembering Shabbat. According to 11th century scholar Maimonides, the drinking of wine is so pleasurable, this action would create a specific and positive memory for the enjoyment of Shabbat, and therefore, make it hard to forget!
And we eat two challahs to commemorate the double portion of manna (a miraculous food source God rained from the sky to provide the Israelites substance while journeying through the desert) the Israelites collected on Fridays, as one was prohibited from gathering it (working) on Shabbat. Fun fact: Challah used to be shaped as ordinary bread. Challah’s braids are only about 500-years-old and symbolize the lovely braided hair of the “Sabbath Bride.” I agree, ignorance would have been bliss on this one…
4. Shabbat is so holy, it must be welcomed with poems and hymns.
Kabbalat Shabbat, “Welcoming Shabbat,” begins our worship right when the sun sets on Friday evening. This service is composed of poems praising and exalting God from the Book of Psalms.
This tradition dates back to 16th century Israel, in the sacred city of Safed. Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabezt, composer of “Lecha Dodi” (“Come my Beloved”), would lead his students, all dressed in white, to jubilantly welcome “the Sabbath Bride” among the fields right before sunset. The psalms sung during this service have become quite popular and famous. May I recommend a magnificent preview by Cantor Daniel Mendelsohn singing “L’chu N’ran’na” (Psalm 95), “Sham’ah Vatismach Tzion” (Psalm 97) and “Lecha Dodi”? Now if that doesn’t get you in the mood for a day off, I don’t know what could!
5. It’s not just people that are commanded to rest on Shabbat.
We humans are not the only ones who are in need of a personal day; all of God’s creatures are commanded to rest. That’s right, no loopholes here for farmers wanting their oxen to work in their absence! The Torah explicitly states in Exodus that all animals must cease from work as well. Not only did this ensure that animals would be treated with respect, but would also allow for an equal playing field for businesses (or farms) to work only six days a week.
6. Careful, don’t touch that on Shabbat!
Many of us already know there are lots of things we cannot do on Shabbat (the use of electricity and money are perhaps the most infamous), but did you know there are things we can’t even touch because their only intentioned purpose would cause us to work? In addition to the 39 categories of prohibitions on Shabbat, there are objects deemed muktzeh, “set aside,” that are also forbidden. Some of these culprits include: scissors, writing implements, phones, batteries… you get the idea. But what if one wanted to sit down and, gasp, there is a penny on the chair?! Have no fear! In this case, as in others, one would be able to creatively remove the object without using one’s hands — elbows, knees, feet or even blowing the object off is acceptable!
7. Shabbat may now be over, but Havdalah is here to cheer us up!
Shabbat is so holy, we need a transitional ceremony to go from the “hallowed” (Shabbat) to the “mundane” (the rest of the week). But, the other main purpose of Havdalah, the brief ceremony marking the end of Shabbat, is to make us smile! Our rest day is over — the new work week is beginning. I get a “serious case of the Mondays” just thinking about it! For this reason, Havdalah is a multisensory ceremony: The wine enhances our sense of taste. The fragrant spices delight our sense of smell. The colorful and decorative candle dazzles our sense of sight.
Havdalah is traditionally sung and is short and sweet; the most famous musical arrangement written by none other than superb Jewish American composer, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, is featured in this beautiful video. Oy, how can one keep from swaying? Such naches!
May your Shabbats be plentiful and always pleasant and peaceful!