Why keep Shabbat?
Shabbat is for Jews a constant reminder that we are the people whom the Creator of heaven and earth redeemed from slavery in Egypt. If we cannot make room for Shabbat in our busy schedules, we prove that the fact of our slavery has not changed, only its location.
Ahad Ha'am reminds us: "It was not the Jews that kept the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath that kept the Jews." It was keeping Shabbat that helped us hold fast to Jewish life and identity amidst the threatening political and cultural cross-currents of two millennia in exile. And as we raise our children in a world friendlier to Jews but no less threatening to Jewish life, keeping Shabbat becomes even more critical. Without Shabbat, our children may not forget that they are Jews, but are sure to forget the meaning of being a Jew.
In Growing Up Religious, Robert Wuthnow explores how spiritual identity is preserved and passed on from generation to generation. Speaking of religious practices such as keeping Shabbat he says, "the pursuit of any particular practice (such as Shabbat keeping) is accomplished only at the sacrifice of other possible activities. Growing up religious was a memorable part of people's childhood because it included...discrete, separable activities that took time away from other interests, but they were also embedded in social relationships. People did them with their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, their siblings, and their friends and fellow congregants... But spirituality also came to be understood as a way of life, and it did so because people grew up living it. The parents, teachers, and clergy who understood this best were the ones who created an environment in which spirituality was fully and deeply embedded. They honored the spirituality of chicken dinners, of gefilte fish, of family Bibles [and of Shabbat tables, candles, meals, and the protected differentness of the day]" (xxxv-xxxvii).
The Torah reminds us that we are to be "a people that dwells apart, that shall not be numbered with the nations" (Numbers 23:9). Keeping Shabbat is indispensable if that Jewish distinctness and collective identity is to become real, something one can see, hear, taste and remember as lived experience. While the rest of the world treats Saturday as a day off, a day to shop, or even a day to catch up on work, Jews are to treat Saturday as the holiest of days when we are privileged to host the Holy One at our table and sing his praises in our gathered families. It is a day where all our creativity is devoted to Sabbath joys, and to receiving and celebrating the life we did not make, but have been given by the Holy One. Perhaps you will ask, "What good will keeping Shabbat do for me?" That is, of course, the wrong question. The question is, "What will not keeping Shabbat do to you?" Thousands of years of Jewish history supply the answer: "Nothing good."
Come, keep - and be kept by - the holy Shabbat.
According to the Jewish reckoning of time, days begin at night. But when does "night" begin? Jewish tradition recognizes a transitional period between "day" and "night" that is technically neither day nor night. This is the period that commences with the setting of the sun, and concludes with the appearance of the stars (when the evening sky is clear). In Hebrew this period is called beyn hashmashot - the time "between the suns."
Though the status of this transitional part of the day is inherently ambiguous, for halakhic purposes it needs to be regarded as either part of the day that preceded or the night that follows (e.g., the yahrzeit of someone who dies during this period of the day needs to be determined). In setting the beginning and ending times of the Sabbath, Jewish law has traditionally followed a sound halakhic principle: when there is doubt concerning the application of a law that has biblical authority (that is d'oraita), we should follow the stricter of two possible interpretations. In the case of the Sabbath, this means that we should reckon the time "between the suns" as part of the Sabbath both on Friday and on Saturday. Thus, Shabbat begins with the setting of the sun on Friday, and ends with the appearance of the stars on Saturday.
Rabbinic tradition provided further protection against violation of Shabbat by adding roughly twenty minutes to the day at the beginning and the end. This addition also derives from a talmudic principle that we should "add from the profane to the holy" (b. Rosh Hashanah 8b-9a), and so fulfills a positive as well as a negative (protective) purpose. Thus, the times listed in Jewish calendars for the beginning of Shabbat are slightly earlier than sunset, and the times listed for the ending of Shabbat are slightly later than nightfall.
"You should rejoice in the coming of Shabbat. Imagine how you would put the house in order in honor of the arrival of a dear and distinguished person, all the more so [should you exert yourself] in honor of the Sabbath Queen" (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 72:7).
The Sages interpreted Isaiah 58:13, "You shall honor it [Shabbat]," as meaning that one should wear finer clothing on Shabbat than on weekdays (b. Shabbat 113a).
boundaries of Shabbat built into the natural order. At the same time, given the symbolic importance Shabbat candle lighting has assumed in modern Jewish family life, our own basic practice will not prohibit lighting Shabbat candles after Shabbat begins by transferring a fire from a candle lit before the beginning of Shabbat. In this case the original candle should not be extinguished on Shabbat, nor should the mitzvah berachah be recited.
The custom of lighting Shabbat candles, in order to honor Shabbat and to define the beginning of the holy day within the home, is not a biblical commandment, but is presumed by rabbinic authorities in the Mishnah (m. Shabbat 2:1-7). It is a mitzvah that has been embraced enthusiastically by the Jewish people as a whole, and - like a mezuzah on one's doorpost - it expresses a family's fundamental commitment to Judaism.
The beginning and ending of Shabbat have both objective and subjective dimensions. The objective dimension results from the earth's turning on its axis as it orbits the sun. The subjective dimension involves the deliberate acknowledgement of the day's temporal boundaries by the Jewish people. The importance of the subjective dimension is shown by the fact that one can light candles earlier than the stipulated time, and from that point on one must treat the day as holy. The interdependence of these two dimensions is seen from the traditional principle stated above: Shabbat can be extended, but not diminished (decision 3.1.2). We can take from the profane and add to the holy, but we should not take from the holy and add to the profane.
Traditional Halakhah prohibits both kindling and transferring a flame on Shabbat. Nevertheless, the two actions are distinguished, as is evident in halakhic rulings concerning the holidays. On a holiday one may transfer but not kindle a flame (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 98:1, 31). This suggests that the prohibition of transferring a flame may be an extended stringency protecting the special sanctity of Shabbat. At the very least, one may assume that transferring a flame on Shabbat is a less serious violation than kindling a flame.
Decision 3.2.1 neither encourages nor sanctions transferring a flame on Shabbat. It merely states that observance of the traditional prohibition is not required as part of our basic practice.
On the prohibition of kindling a flame on Shabbat, see decision 4.1.6.
Normally at least two candles are lit. It is customary for the woman of the household to officiate, lighting the candles and then reciting the blessing while covering her face with her hands. She then removes her hands, and looks at the candles.
If there are no women in the household, or no women are available at the appropriate time to perform the mitzvah, a man may and should light the candles.
This practice derives from the combination of two important rules:
(1) A blessing associated with a mitzvah should be said before doing the mitzvah, in order to demonstrate that one is consciously acting in obedience to a divine commandment;
(2) A fire may not be kindled after Shabbat begins. Since the recitation of the blessing signifies the beginning of Shabbat, the candles could not be lit after the blessing - but the blessing should come first! To show respect for both rules, one covers one's face while reciting the blessing - as if the candles were not yet lit. (See Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 75:4)
Normally the candles are lit in the room where Shabbat dinner will be served and kiddush recited, in order to indicate that the candles were lit in honor of Shabbat (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 75:8).
One should participate in a weekly Friday night or Saturday service.
Shabbat is a sign of God's eternal covenant with the people of Israel (Exodus 31:12,
16-17). As such, it is important that Jews gather before God as a community on this day, to honor the covenant and the One who gave it.
Jews throughout the centuries have recognized the special importance of gathering on Shabbat for prayer and study. It is noteworthy that one of the earliest Jewish documents attesting this practice is the New Testament (Luke 4:15-16, 31-33; Acts 13:13-15; 15:21).
We commend as expanded practice ritual handwashing (netilat yadaim) with its traditional berachah, use of two loaves of bread, salting the bread, recitation of ayshet hayil, blessing of the children, singing of zemirot (special Sabbath songs), full birkat hamazon, and discussion of Torah (divrey Torah).
Kiddush at the noon meal is recited over any beverage except water. If the beverage is not wine, then shehakol is substituted for borey peri hagafen.
We commend as expanded practice ritual handwashing (netilat yadaim), singing of zemirot, discussion of Torah (divrey Torah), and the full birkat hamazon..
The Talmud sees the recitation of kiddush (literally, "sanctification") over wine at the beginning of Shabbat as a fulfillment of Exodus 20:8 - "Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it" (b. Pesachim 106a). Maimonides applies the verse also to havdalah (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat 29:1). Friday evening kiddush and Saturday evening havdalah serve both as ceremonial declarations (corporate and verbal acts of "remembrance") of the holiness of the day, and as lines of demarcation, subjectively distinguishing the sacred from the secular.
Wine symbolizes and conveys the joy of the Sabbath day. In Judaism, holiness and joy are indissolubly united.
On hamotzi and birkat hamazon, see decisions 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11.
According to rabbinic tradition, the ritual washing of hands should precede all meals at which bread is eaten. This custom derives from the Torah's ritual for priests before offering sacrifice or performing service within the tabernacle/temple
(Exodus 30:17-21). By extending this practice to all meals outside the temple, Jewish tradition implies that the role of every Jew is priestly and the table of every Jew is a sacred altar. If this is true for all meals, how much more so for the meal that inaugurates Shabbat!
The Besorot (Gospels) record a dispute between Yeshua and Pharisaic teachers concerning the practice of hand washing before meals (Matthew 15:1-20;
Mark 7:1-23). The dispute had less to do with hand washing itself, and more with the primacy of biblical law over Pharisaic oral tradition, the primacy of basic moral imperatives (such as honoring parents) over ritual minutiae, and the nature of true defilement and purification. It is also important to recognize that ritual hand washing in the first century was a distinctive Pharisaic custom, and not a generally accepted Jewish norm, as it later became. Since Yeshua showed consistent respect for Jewish norms, we cannot assume that he would treat ritual hand washing today as he did in his original disputes with the Pharisees. For more on this topic, see Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005).
One ceases from his or her profession, trade, or daily occupation on Shabbat, except in the following occupations: health care workers and care-givers, police, military, emergency personnel, and synagogue personnel who are involved in the synagogue activities of the day.
Accommodations may be made on a case-by-case basis by a bet din handling a conversion.
"If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth" (Isaiah 58:13-14a)
Isaac Klein points out the halakhic implications of this text from Isaiah: "The obvious intent of this passage is that one should not pursue his chosen profession, trade, or daily occupation on the Sabbath; the merchant should not go to his store, the manufacturer to his plant, the laborer to his shop, or the professional to his office" (80-81).
All traditional Jewish authorities recognize exceptions to this rule, and to all Shabbat restrictions, in matters pertaining to the saving or preserving of life (b. Yoma 85a, b. Shabbat 132a). Yeshua highlights this principle, and even appears to extend it beyond maters of life and death to include basic acts of kindness to those in genuine need (Mark 3:1-5). Similarly, the Torah commands priests to perform tasks in the temple on Shabbat that are prohibited to others engaged in secular pursuits (Matthew 12:5). Accordingly, a rabbi serving a congregation on Shabbat is fulfilling a mitzvah rather than performing forbidden work.
According to our basic practice, one should not kindle a flame on Shabbat. Halakhic authorities disagree about whether the use of electrical devices and the combustion involved in starting and running an automobile violate this commandment of the Torah. Our basic practice will follow the more lenient interpretation.
"You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3).
The kindling of fire, which involves creating a flame, transforming the nature of the material consumed by the flame, and giving off light and heat, serves as a paradigmatic illustration of the sort of creative activity prohibited on Shabbat. It also recalls God's first act of creation in Genesis 1 - the formation of light.
While all Orthodox halakhic authorities prohibit the use of electricity on Shabbat, some see this restriction as a rabbinic extension of the biblical commandment rather than a prohibition carrying the full weight of the Written Torah (see Donin, To Be A Jew, 92).
In a groundbreaking responsum issued and adopted in 1950, the Conservative movement accepted the view that the prohibition of electricity on Shabbat carried rabbinic and not Scriptural authority. As such, it was to be respected, but it could also be modified in light of other important considerations.
On an even more controversial point, the same responsum ruled that combustion for energy (such as that which occurs in an automobile) does not constitute the type of "kindling" prohibited on Shabbat.
The prohibition of practicing one's occupation on Shabbat implies that Jews should not sell merchandise on Shabbat. While this is not explicitly stated in the Torah, it is presumed as early as the prophet Amos, who indicates that even the wicked refrain from selling wheat on Shabbat (Amos 8:4-5). Nehemiah makes clear that the purchasing of goods on Shabbat likewise profanes the holy day (Nehemiah 10:31; 13:15-18).
Rabbinic tradition extended this prohibition of buying and selling by forbidding any contact with money on Shabbat. This helpful custom reinforced the basic prohibition, and fostered an experience of the holiness of the day. Strict adherence to this halakhic extension would, of course, rule out the giving of offerings and tzdeakah on Shabbat. While acknowledging the value of the traditional practice, the Messianic Jewish
Rabbinical Council takes no official position on the appropriateness of giving offerings and tzedakah on Shabbat. Decision 3.7.4 does, however, make clear that such giving does not violate the Torah's basic prohibition of buying and selling on Shabbat.
In general, traveling on Shabbat conflicts with the spirit of the day. Nevertheless, limited travel may be appropriate to uphold certain values that are themselves associated with Shabbat. Thus, our basic practice does not prohibit travel on Shabbat to attend services at the synagogue, to visit the sick, and to sustain contact with the synagogue community and with one's family, though such travel should not occupy a substantial portion of the day. Normally one should avoid traveling on Shabbat for other purposes.
"Each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29).
A strict reading of this text could lead to the view that one should not leave one's house on Shabbat. However, the Talmud interprets the passage as meaning only that one should not travel far from one's residence on Shabbat (b. Eruvin 51a).
Rabbinic tradition established clear limits to such travel: within a city one could go any distance, whereas beyond city limits one could go two thousand cubits (about three quarters of a mile). Knowledge of and respect for such limits is seen in the Book of Acts, which refers to the distance between the Mount of Olives and the city of Jerusalem as "a Sabbath day's journey" (Acts 1:12).
Rabbinic tradition likewise prohibited riding a horse or a wagon on Shabbat. The authorities understood this to be a rabbinic rather than a Scriptural rule, ordained because such forms of travel may lead indirectly to the violation of Shabbat.
Traditional rabbinic concerns still apply today. While these concerns may not lead us to avoid all travel on Shabbat, they should cause us to limit our travel to a minimum.
On Shabbat we do not manipulate and alter the world but receive and enjoy it. Cooking alters the composition of food. Therefore, all food for Shabbat should be cooked in advance, or the cooking should be initiated in advance (as in a crock-pot). However, food may be reheated.
The traditional prohibition of cooking on Shabbat is implicit in the story of the manna (Exodus 16). The people gather two days supply of manna each Friday, and prepare their Shabbat meals before the holy day begins: "This is what the LORD has commanded: 'Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning'" (Exodus 16:23). The baking and boiling must be completed while Shabbat is still "tomorrow."
Due to the demands of modern life, the traditional prohibition on writing and drawing places an excessive burden upon the Messianic Jewish community in our contemporary situation. Therefore, our basic practice will not include prohibitions of the sort of writing and drawing that enhances the community's ability to experience Shabbat and that does not violate the spirit of Shabbat. At the same time, we appreciate the reasons for these prohibitions and recognize their great value, and therefore commend them as part of our expanded practice.
As should be clear by the last sentence, this decision neither encourages nor sanctions writing or drawing on Shabbat. It merely states that observance of the traditional prohibition is not required as part of our basic practice.
Laborious activity such as moving heavy appliances or heavy furniture is not appropriate on Shabbat.
Speaking in the name of God, the prophet Jeremiah sees the "bearing of a burden" as incompatible with the holiness of Shabbat: "Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors" (Jeremiah 17:21-22).
While this text appears to us to focus on the carrying of any heavy load on Shabbat, rabbinic tradition understood it differently. It is there interpreted as applying to the carrying of any object, regardless of its size or weight, but only when that object is moved from one domain to another. According to the Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2), the thirty-ninth major category of work prohibited on Shabbat is "removing an object from one domain to another." As with the other basic categories of work, this prohibition is traditionally viewed as Scriptural rather than rabbinic in nature.
Traditional Halakhah also prohibited the carrying of heavy objects within a domain, but this was seen as a rabbinic rather than Scriptural limitation, imposed to preserve the spirit of Shabbat.
In our view, the authoritative sources of the two commandments (not carrying from one domain to another, not bearing a heavy burden) should be reversed. We understand the prohibition of bearing a heavy burden as Scriptural, and the prohibition of carrying any object from one domain to another as rabbinic. We respect the rabbinic limitation and commend it as an expanded practice, but we have not included it as part of our basic practice.
On Shabbat one should avoid as much as possible activities that, while not strictly work, are not in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat. This principle is called shevut.
To keep the spirit of Shabbat, it is important that the people one is with are not violating the spirit of Shabbat. Therefore, it is best to avoid Shabbat activities that involve the general public.
In determining which social amusements are fitting to Shabbat and which unfitting, one may be guided by the words of Morris Joseph (Judaism as Creed and Life, New York: Bloch, 1920), quoted by Issac Klein (pages 89-90): "The Sabbath is a sacred day and there are certain kinds of enjoyment which by their very nature are out of harmony with its inherent holiness. Participation in them on the Sabbath is like a sudden intrusion of a shrill street organ on a beautiful melody sung by a lovely voice. It is difficult, almost impossible, to lay down a definite rule on this point, to say 'This sort of amusement is allowable, that sort improper, on the Sabbath.' The matter must be left to the individual conscience, to each person's sense of what is seemly."
Isaac Klein provides a clear and concise statement of the meaning of shevut: "The term shevut (resting) covers a whole area of activities which are not strictly work but are to be avoided because they are not in the Spirit of the Sabbath, or because doing them may lead to acts that constitute a major desecration of the Sabbath" (84). This is a crucial concept for making Shabbat a transforming experience rather than a mere compliance with a set of arbitrary external restrictions.
It is possible to avoid all forms of work, yet never enter into the spirit of Shabbat. To partake of that spirit, one must combine the joyful experience of the day's holiness with the avoidance of all activities that detract from that holiness.
In addition to television, we must be careful in our use of computers and recorded video. It is possible to employ these media in a way that preserves the spirit of Shabbat. However, they also have great potential for undermining that spirit, especially when members of the family retreat to their own monitors and their own private worlds, or when the contents viewed involve intense sensory stimulation, or are violent or immodest.
Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as "a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence" (Heschel, The Sabbath, 15). While Shabbat exists whether we observe it or not, our experience of the day depends on how we build that palace in our lives. The habit of avoiding distracting activities and thoughts while actively participating in Shabbat-related activities has the cumulative effect of creating an atmosphere entirely different from the other six days of the week, a time without struggle or worry.