So, Shabbat is something you are a little familiar with, having seen it–or at least part of it–first-hand. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained it top-to-bottom, and given its centrality in observant Jewish life, I believe a proper e-mail is in order.
First of all, as you know, the commandment to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not only a Biblical commandment, it is one of the Ten Commandments. There are two reasons listed in the Bible for keeping the Sabbath: “as a remembrance of the Act of Creation”, and “as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt”. That first reason has fairly straightforward to the concept of a day of rest. In Genesis, it says that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Of course, in the mainstream Jewish interpretation we do not take any of that literally. For one thing, how could there be “days” before the sun itself was created (on the fourth day)? For another, how could a God who has no body or needs of any sort “rest”? What does that even mean? Did He continue creating afterwards? Not that we know of, right? So why do we say He “rested” on the seventh day–what about the eighth, and the ninth, and every day after that?
We must conclude that we are not talking about the kicking-up-your-heels-with-a-glass-of-lemonade-on-a-Sunday-morning kind of rest. And that’s good, because if what we’re supposed to do on Shabbat is “rest”, why aren’t we allowed to do something ridiculously easy like flip a light switch, or relaxing, like playing music?
So here’s the thing. In Judaism (and in most spiritual practices) we believe that the physical world that we see, touch, smell, hear and taste, is just one aspect of the universe, and that there is a parallel spiritual world as well. One of the central concepts of Judaism is channeling the sanctity of the spiritual world into the physical world. We do this through observing the Torah–God’s “guide book to life”, which practically speaking means observing the commandments. So in a way, the act of keeping a mitzvah is a space in the realm of action where the Divine and the mundane interact.
There are a number of “meeting points” between the spiritual and physical worlds according to Judaism. In the realm of space, for example, there is a physical place where the Divine and the mundane meet. That place is (was…) the Temple, and by extension, the city of Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel. Their holiness is in that they have a central role in channeling the spiritual into the physical.
There also exists a “meeting point” in the realm of time. That meeting point is Shabbat.
To Jews, Shabbat is a time above time. It exists on a different plane than the rest of the week. The rest of the week, we have a mission in the world–to act as partners in God’s creation, to take the raw materials He has given us and build the world into a better place. You know how in the story of man’s creation in Genesis, it says that man was created “in God’s image”? Christians take that in an entirely different direction… but in Judaism, what we believe this means is that God made us like Him by giving us the ability to create. While other animals also have a limited capacity to create things, they do not do so with the intention of creating something new, but rather to sustain themselves. We have an aspiration to become greater than we are and make the world greater than it is. This is what defines us, and this, we believe, is why we are here.
On Shabbat, something changes. We step back from our role as creators, and recognize that we are also a creation. God’s creation. If you will, it’s sort of like an office party where we toast the Boss to acknowledge his role in making this all possible. 😉 So all the things we are prohibited to do on Shabbat, are acts of creation. We are supposed to use that time to focus on everything God gave us and helped us create–family, friends, good food and wine, studying Torah, and otherwise “basking in the Divine light”. In our tradition, Shabbat is “a taste of the World to Come”–both in the sense of the Messianic era, and in our idea of Heaven. A time when we will no longer have to partner with God in creation; where our work will be complete, so we can finally rest and enjoy being creations of God.
So what, practically, does this look like? Well, you’ve seen part of it, but to be comprehensive I’ll take us chronologically from lighting the candles to the havdalah ceremony.
Bringing In Shabbat
I elaborated upon the Shabbat candles in this entry, so I won’t go into their significance here. The lady of the household is usually the one who performs that ritual. We wave our hands in front of the flames in a beckoning gesture, three times, to signify “bringing in” Shabbat, and then we cover our eyes and make the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath candles.” It is customary for the woman to then pray for her family and herself, as this is considered an auspicious time for prayer.
Then evening prayers are held at the synagogue. I should note, by the way, that morning, afternoon and evening prayers are not only held at the synagogue on Shabbat, but every day. Men are obligated to pray three times a day in a minyan, a quorum of ten men. The Sabbath prayers are longer and more festive. The synagogue we took you to holds prayers in the style of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which means that it has a lot more singing and dancing than most services. In any case, the regular evening prayers are preceded by a collection of Psalms and special songs. This section of prayers is called Kabbalat Shabbat, “the reception of Shabbat”. The most famous of these songs is Lekhah Dodi, a poem written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, a Sephardi Kabbalist who lived in Safed in the 16th century. It compares the Sabbath to a bride coming to meet her groom (the nation of Israel). The poem is really beautiful; Wikipedia has a good translation of the lyrics under “Text”. The melodies you heard were ones composed by Rabbi Carlebach, but I thought you would be interested to know about the melody sung in most Sephardi synagogues. It is an ancient Moorish melody brought to Israel by refugees from Spain–meaning it is actually older than Lekhah Dodi itself. Here is a beautiful rendition by Ehud Banai. He is singing Psalm 95, which is the opening Psalm to Kabbalat Shabbat, and then Lekhah Dodi.
The Evening Feast
After we come home from synagogue, as you know, it’s time to eat! We are required to eat three festive meals on Shabbat–one at night, one in the morning/afternoon following prayers, and one towards sunset. The meal opens with the kiddush ceremony, a prayer recited over a goblet of wine. Kiddush means “sanctification”, and reciting this prayer over wine is sort of a declaration of the holiness of the day. Why over wine? Because the presence of wine and bread are required for any meal of “distinction”–a se’udah, or feast, which is often required as part of fulfilling a major commandment. Aside from the holidays, we are also required to have a se’udah following a marriage or a circumcision ceremony. Any significant moment in Jewish life is celebrated with a feast. Which brings me back to what I’ve been telling you about Jews all these years… we’re all about the food! 😉
So the head of the household makes kiddush and all those present answer “amen” and have a sip. Next we must wash for bread. We wash our hands before eating bread all the time; this is not a special Shabbat thing. Like I showed you, we pour water from a cup over our hands, three times for each hand, and then recite a blessing over washing hands (which I spared you 😉 ). Because washing hands is supposed to occur right before eating bread, we are careful not to speak (except for the blessings and “amen”) until we have eaten it, so there is no hefsek, or “break”, between washing and eating. And that is where my beautiful challahs come in:
It is not, of course, required that they be home-baked. 😉 I just happen to love baking them. It is also not required that they be braided, or as sweet and delicious as mine are 😛 (Though that is the Ashkenazi custom.) What is required is to use two full loaves of bread to make the blessing. They symbolize the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert; every day, each Israelite would get one portion of manna, but on Friday, they would get two, one for Friday and one for Shabbat.
So the head of the household makes the blessing over the challah and then distributes it to the family and guests, and then we are free to proceed with our meal. Beyond the wine and bread, there is no specific requirement for what the meal should contain, though it is customary to serve meat, as it is festive. It is customary to sing special songs about the Sabbath during the meal, and to discuss ideas from the Torah.
Speaking of guests, hosting guests is actually a mitzvah, and it is common to invite friends, neighbors and family over to share the meals on Shabbat and holidays. It’s like a dinner party every single week. 😀
In the morning, there are services at the synagogue, during which the weekly portion of the Torah is publicly read. That practice goes back to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the Jews returning from the first exile, in attempt to familiarize all Jews with the Torah, even those who couldn’t read. Studying Torah has always been a value of utmost importance for Jews, which is why we had such an exceptionally high literacy rate throughout history.
After the service, we have the second feast. In American congregations, it is common to have the kiddush at the synagogue with wine and refreshments, and then to continue the meal at home starting from the challah. Israelis tend to have prayers earlier and go straight home for kiddush and the meal.
The afternoon is spent enjoying friends and family, reading, napping, and/or studying Torah. There is a specific mitzvah to enjoy oneself on Shabbat, so we try to set aside the best food and (permitted) entertainment for that day.
Se’udah Shlisheet and Havdalah
Towards evening, there are afternoon prayers, and then the third meal–se’udah shlisheet. This meal does not require wine or whole loaves of bread, and in a pinch it doesn’t even have to include bread, so naturally it’s a lighter meal. We usually just have more challah with spreads. It is customary to sing songs with sort of sad melodies during this meal, to express our sadness that Shabbat will soon be leaving.
When three stars have emerged, it is time to pray the evening prayers, and then to “make havdalah”. Havdalah means “differentiation”, and the ceremony marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. It is recited over yet another goblet of wine, starting with some verses from Isaiah: Here is the Lord of my salvation, I shall trust and I shall not fear; for my strength and my song, He has become my salvation…” And some other verses from the Tanakh. Then, the blessing is made over the wine.
Next comes the blessing for besamim. Besamim means “spices”; we smell something pleasant, like cloves or cinnamon, to sort of “ease the sadness” of Shabbat leaving. Next, the blessing over the candle. It is customary to then look at the reflection of the light on our fingernails. The idea is that it would be improper to recite a blessing for something and then not use it, so we use the light of the candle… to examine our fingernails. I have no idea why that of all things became the custom. I’m sure someone has a very profound Kabbalistic explanation somewhere. 😛
Next comes the final blessing: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who differentiates between holy and mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the Six Days of Action. Blessed are You, Lord, who differentiates between holy and mundane.
The candle is then put out, usually by spilling a little wine onto a plate and putting the flame out with it. And that’s it, the new week has begun! We sing a song asking for God’s blessing for the coming week, and for Elijah the prophet to come and announce the coming of the Messiah.
…And then, to clean up the mess. 😛
Well, I’d say this qualifies as a Daniella Standard Size E-mail! If you’re confused or wish for an elaboration on a certain aspect, you know how to find me–and don’t forget, you still owe me a full Shabbat. 😉 (I certainly won’t forget. You know I never forget anything. 😛 )
Feliç Any Nou!
Blog readers: Anyone want to volunteer an explanation for the fingernails thing? Anything else you’d like to add or ask about Shabbat?