What is the Sabbath?
To begin, let’s clarify a little terminology. “The Sabbath”, “Shabbat”, and “Shabbos” are just
slightly different terms for the same day. How could that happen? Shabbat is the Sephardic
pronunciation, Shabbos is the Ashkenazic pronunciation, and Sabbath is the ‘Anglicized’
version. I will use the terms interchangeably.
The Sabbath is the period from sundown Friday until dark on Saturday. Many are tempted to define “Shabbat” as the time in which “Jews are prohibited from working and doing many other things”. While it is technically true that work and other types of activities are prohibited on Shabbat, this is not the definition of the day, but rather only one of its characteristics.
First and foremost, the Sabbath is a holy day. It is the weekly commemoration of God’s creating the universe in six days and resting on the seventh day. It is a day to take a break from the rat race. “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest”; (Exodus 20:9). It is a day to ignore telephones, cell phones, beepers, pagers, laptops, Blackberries, emails, text messages, and all other modern “conveniences” that make our lives easier, yet more complicated. It is a day to spend with your children, (you know, the little guys you occasionally pass during the week). It is a day to spend with your better half. It is a spiritual day. It is the day of rest.
Yes, it is true that there are many laws and requirements. But it would be impossible to have a meaningful day of rest without restrictions. In other words, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath
has kept the Jews.”, as Ahad Ha’am wrote. It is this weekly opportunity to rest and reconnect spiritually and with our family, that has retained the Jewish people throughout the millennia.
Shabbat is so central to Judaism that it is mentioned numerous times in the Bible and it is among the Ten Commandments.
Shabbat: All or Nothing?
On a recent Birthright trip to Israel, one of the young ladies told me that she was moved by the Friday night candle lighting. She wanted to start lighting every Friday night, yet she realized she was far from observant.
She wanted to know whether it would be hypocritical to light Friday night candles and then go out for the evening.
The answer is that Shabbat is not all or nothing.
The Ten Commandments are written in the Torah/Bible two times. The wording is slightly different in each place, and the full text is in Chapter eight, The Three Pillars. One time the Torah says “Keep the Sabbath”,
and one time the Torah says, “Remember the Sabbath”. “Remembering the Sabbath” instructs us to verbally mention the Sabbath and to mention its praise, this is done by reciting the Kiddush, (see below). Yes, it would be best to both “Keep” and “Remember” the Sabbath. But if today you can’t keep the Sabbath, it is certainly appropriate to at least ‘honor’ the Sabbath by lighting candles and reciting the Kiddush, (see below), or doing whatever you can do.
How to Turn Friday Night Into Shabbat
Maybe you recently ate a Friday night meal at a friend’s house or attended the excellent “Shabbat Across America” program (njop.org), and enjoyed it. Now you are wondering, can I possibly pull this off on my own? The answer is, of course you can. To get started, here’s a handy checklist. Each of these items will be covered in detail in this chapter:
The Shabbat Checklist
• Light Shabbat Candles
• Shalom Alaychem
• Ayshet Chayil/ Woman of Valor
• Bless the Children
• Washing for Bread and Hamotzee, the Blessing for Bread
• Festive Meal
• Words of Jewish Wisdom/ D’var Torah
• Birkat Hamazon/ Grace After Meal
How to Light Shabbat Candles
Candle lighting is ideally done 18 minutes before sunset. It may be done earlier. That would “bring in Shabbat earlier”, which is certainly permissible. Candle lighting may not be done after sunset. Typically, two candles are lit, although there is a custom to add one candle for each child. Almost any type of candles may be used,
provided they don’t flicker, don’t have a bad odor and last for at least two hours. Today, wax candles are used almost exclusively. Although we typically recite blessings prior to fulfilling mitzvot, we light the Shabbat candles before reciting the blessing. Why? Once we recite the blessing, we have welcomed in the Sabbath and at that point lighting would not generally be permissible. This is also the reason the eyes are covered; we don’t want to see the light until after we make the blessing.