The Shabbat

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbat for HaVaYaH Your God. You may do no work -- you, your son and your daughter, your slave and your maidservant, your animal and the stranger who is in your gates. For in six days HaVaYaH made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore HaVaYaH blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it" (Exodus 20:8-11).

It is a strange irony that many people dislike work intensely and do it only if they have to, yet they find it hard to accept the idea of taking a complete holiday from all work once a week in order to experience Shabbat.

When Adam was in Eden he did not have to struggle to make a living. With all his needs provided, he was free to soar to supreme spiritual heights. But because of the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, mankind has to bear the scourge of having to sweat to earn a living. Many people are enslaved bodily and mentally to their work: that is how they live and that is how they die.

It was out of love and compassion that God "gave" the weekly Shabbat to release us from this slavery and comfort us during our exile in this world of labor. Once every seven days we can have a foretaste of the great bliss of the eternal Shabbat awaiting us when we finally complete our service in this world and our souls will return to the Garden of Eden.

Shabbat is a time to let our souls take the wings of Daat-consciousness and reunite with God in joy and delight. But the complete holiday experience of Shabbat can be attained only by forgetting about work and struggle and abstaining for the entire day from even the tiniest act of productive labor and physical manipulation of this world for our own ends. "For six days you may labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbat for HaVaYaH Your God. You may do no work..."

The gift of Shabbat can be enjoyed only by fulfilling the necessary preconditions. Only by abstaining from all work is it possible to enter the state of perfect "rest" from the mundane world that enables us to ascend to the exalted spiritual levels accessible through this unique weekly celebration.

Melechet Machshevet

The Hebrew word for work is Melachah. The specific kinds of labor that are incompatible with Shabbat are those that fall into the category of Melechet Machshevet, actions that have the dimension of Machshavah -- "thought" or "intention". A labor that is Melechet Machshevet is one that is carried out with a thought or intention in mind, namely to manipulate something in the material world in a particular way with the purpose of bringing about a new state from which we hope to benefit.

The rabbis listed thirty-nine types of labor that may not be performed on Shabbat. These correspond to the thirty-nine types of labor that were involved in the building of the Sanctuary in the wilderness by the Children of Israel. These thirty-nine types of labor are generic categories encompassing every conceivable kind of productive labor in the world -- plowing and harvesting, processing and cooking food, weaving and sewing clothes, building, repairing, writing, lighting a fire, turning on a light or appliance, driving a car, producing a computer chip, piloting a spaceship and countless others.

Productive labor to provide for our material needs is a necessary and honorable activity, but it is not the primary purpose of our existence in this world. Nor indeed is our purpose here merely to consume the material fruits of our labors and live off the fat of the land. Our true mission is to use the material things of this world as aids in pursuit of our spiritual destiny. This transforms the thirty-nine labors with which we provide for our needs from being a bitter scourge into holy acts that turn this material world into God's Sanctuary in which everything reveals and declares His glory.

Only when we are not slaves to our work activities do we have the power to focus and direct them to holy ends and thereby sanctify them. There is something very compulsive about work. Even when people have more than they need for today, they still worry about what they will have when tomorrow comes. Fear and anxiety about future consumption drives people to keep doing and doing without a break, as if this will somehow keep them in control and give them what they desire.

Wanting to be in control was what made Adam take the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He was punished by having to toil and struggle in this world -- and even then he is not in control! As long as man wants total control, refusing to work in partnership with the greater power of God, he turns himself into his own taskmaster, beating himself with the scourge of work.

The prohibition of all work on Shabbat comes to free man from slavery to his own compulsiveness. People find it hard to understand why Shabbat is incompatible with all kinds of favorite leisure-time activities from TV, driving, sports, concerts, theater, cinema and the like to gardening, writing, painting, playing with computers and many more. These restrictions seem to turn what is supposed to be a holiday into a tedious, forced rest.

It should not surprise us that so many people have no idea about what Shabbat really is since the true Shabbat experience is virtually unknown in our contemporary urban-technological culture. Big cities know no Shabbat. They never ever stop. Twenty-four hours a day seven days a week people are shopping, TV's, radios, and videos jabber away, phones ring, lights flash on and off, cars flow endlessly along the highways, planes fly to and fro....

Unaware of the degree to which they are swept up in this energy, many people have simply lost the ability to relax and just BE without doing, doing, doing. It is as if they fear what might come into their minds if they were to stop, leave go of all gadgets and appliances and simply let things be without having to keep busy, be entertained or otherwise distracted for a while.

One reason why meditation has had such an impact in advanced technological societies over the past half century is because the practice of simply sitting and exploring the spiritual possibilities of the state of not-doing appeals to such a deep-seated craving in sensitive souls trapped amidst the tensions of contemporary "civilization".

The word Shabbat is related to the Hebrew root SheVeT, "sitting". This does not mean that the twenty-five hours of Shabbat from just before sunset on Friday until after dark on Saturday night have to be spent literally sitting doing nothing. The purpose of this weekly rest from all physical labor is to enable us to enter the world of spirit in a way that is not possible when we are preoccupied with our normal weekday activities.

The keynote of Shabbat is Oneg, the pleasure and delight that come from joyous prayer, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, strolling around enjoying the wonder of God's world, relaxing with dear ones and friends over festive meals, conversing, story-telling, singing together....

"If you restrain your feet because of the Shabbat, refrain from pursuing your own needs on My holy day and proclaim the Shabbat a delight, giving honor to God's holy honored one, and if you honor it by not doing your own ways, seeking your needs or discussing the forbidden. Then you shall take delight in HaVaYaH and I will let you ride on the heights of the earth and let you eat the heritage of your father Jacob, for the mouth of HaVaYaH has spoken" (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Shabbat practice and awareness of nature

Many of the positive practices of Shabbat are bound up with appreciating the wonders of creation and heightening our awareness of the surrounding natural environment (see below). This is of the greatest importance at a time when our "advanced" civilization is causing irreparable damage to the natural Earth environment through its mindless, compulsive consumer extravagance and waste. One of the main reasons why humanity is standing by and letting this happen is because our urban-technological environment cuts people off from direct contact with nature, leaving them insensitive to the effects of consumerism on the natural environment.

If people had the courage to turn off their TV's, computers and other gadgetry in order to look with new eyes at the skies, the trees and plants, the birds and other living creatures, it would have a profound effect on their outlook and awareness. The detailed laws of Shabbat observance apply specifically to the Jewish People and not to gentiles. But the Shabbat mode of relating to the world may prove to be of universal significance. When man stops trying to manipulate the world for his own ends he can sit back and see it for what it is: God's most amazing creation. Only when he sees it as such can he indeed really enjoy it -- savoring its wonder and beauty with love, deep reverence and gratitude.

Shabbat Eve Prayers

Awareness of Maaseh Bereishit, the "Work of Creation" is one of the principle themes of Shabbat, and many of the prayers in the traditional Shabbat liturgy help us enhance this awareness.

There is a custom to read the Song of Songs on arrival in the synagogue on Friday afternoon prior to the Shabbat eve services, or alternatively at some other point during Shabbat. This exquisite love song of a shepherd and his beloved (God and the Soul, or God and the Jewish People) is set amidst fields, meadows, orchards, vineyards, gardens, hills and mountains covered with fragrant herbs, aside the freshest, purest untouched springs, with sheep and goats grazing peacefully and trailing down the hillsides. There are references to all kinds of trees, plants, herbs, spices, various animals, the sun and the moon, etc.

Recital of the Song of Songs is a guided meditation that lifts us out of our everyday mentality and brings us into Shabbat consciousness, taking us to an idyllic, faraway, pure, simple, innocent world of artless natural beauty, grace, love and joy.

The Friday afternoon Minchah-service is followed by Kabbalat Shabbat, "Receiving the Shabbat". This starts with a series of Psalms 95-99 and 29, followed by the Lecha Dodi ("Come my beloved") and Psalm 92, "A Psalm for the Shabbat Day") and Psalm 93.

Mystical texts refer to the Friday night Shabbat spirit as "the field of holy apples". Receiving the Shabbat is like going out into a field. The kabbalistic practice of going out literally into the fields on Friday and chanting the prayers while facing the setting sun has already been discussed (see Out in the Meadows). The various Psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service are full of references to the grandeur and glory of nature:

"The heavens will be glad and the earth will rejoice, the sea and its fullness will roar; the field and everything in it will exult, then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy." (Psalms 96:11-12).

"HaVaYaH rules, let the earth exult, let many islands rejoice. Cloud and thick darkness are around Him; righteousness and justice are His throne's foundation. Fire goes before Him and consumes his enemies all around. His lightening bolts light up the world; the earth saw and trembled. The mountains melted like wax from HaVaYaH, before the Lord of all the earth..." (ibid. 97:1-5).

"The sea and its fullness will roar, the world and those who dwell therein. Rivers will clap hands, mountains will exult together..." (ibid. 98:7-8).

"The voice of HaVaYaH is upon the waters, the God of Glory thunders, HaVaYaH over many waters. The voice of HaVaYaH is in power; the voice of HaVaYaH is in splendor. The voice of HaVaYaH breaks the cedars, and HaVaYaH will break the cedars of Lebanon. He will make them dance like a calf, Lebanon and Siryon like young buffalos. The voice of HaVaYaH cleaves with shafts of fire. The voice of HaVaYaH convulses the wilderness, HaVaYaH convulses the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of HaVaYaH frightens the hinds and strips the forests bare, and in His Temple everything proclaims `Glory'!" (ibid. 29:3-9).

"More than the roar of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea -- You are mighty on high, HaShem." (ibid. 93:4).

Kiddush and the Shabbat meals

"Thus the heavens and earth were finished and all their hosts. On the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it he rested from all His work which God created to make" (Genesis 2:1-3).

This passage is recited three times on Friday night, twice in the course of the Synagogue evening service and once after returning home for the Friday night meal, when it is recited over a cup of wine as part of the Kiddush, Sanctification of the Shabbat over a cup of wine.

Recital of this passage is bound up with the aspect of Shabbat that has to do with awareness. This aspect is expressed in the Biblical command, "Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy... for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day" (Exodus 20:8 & 10). To remember something is to keep it in the forefront of one's mind, to be conscious and aware of it. One of the purposes of Shabbat is to help us keep ourselves aware of the fact that God created everything. Awareness of this fact decisively affects everything we do in this world.

Those schooled in modern philosophy and science often have difficulty relating to the Biblical account of creation in six days and God "resting" on the Shabbat. This problem could be eased if they would seek out the kabbalistic meaning of the Hebrew text rather than depending on misleading literal translations.

The Friday evening prayers and meal are times for giving special attention to Maaseh Bereishit, the "Work of Creation". The full cup of wine over which the passage "Thus the heavens and earth were finished" is recited at the Kiddush at the beginning of the meal symbolizes the blessing that flows from this awareness.

This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the deep significance of the three Shabbat meals (Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon) collectively or individually. Suffice it to say that we adorn the Shabbat table with flowers and bring to it the choicest possible variety of produce of God's creation, the finest bread and wine, fish, meat, salads, fruits, desserts, nuts, cakes and dainties, etc. each according to their taste. The purpose is not pure gastronomy. It is to treat the soul to every kind of delight in order to enhance the joy of experiencing God everywhere, in everything.

Some have the custom of bringing fragrant herbs to the table in order bring the scents of the field inside the home and make blessings over them. The variety of different kinds of foods provides an opportunity to offer many different blessings of praise and thanks.

More than any other time during the week the home on Shabbat becomes a mini-Temple, with the table as the altar where we partake of sacrifices of thanksgiving, thereby accomplishing something of the fixing of creation that came about through the Temple rituals (see The dark side of nature).

Offerings in the Temple are brought to the accompaniment of the Levitical chants and songs. Parallel to these in the home are the special Shabbat Zemirot, "songs" for the Shabbat meals. Many different Jewish communities around the world have added their own contributions to the rich treasury of Shabbat Zemirot that poetically express the many different themes of Shabbat. Prominent among these themes is awareness of the nature order:

"In six days all was created and still endures, the most exalted heavens, earth, and seas, all the hosts of above, high and exalted, sea giant and man and mighty beasts -- that the creator, Hashem, is the Rock of the Universe" (from Menuchah veSimchah).

"Praises shall I prepare morning and evening to You, O Holy God, Who created all life, holy angels and sons of man, beasts of the field and birds of the sky" (from Yah Ribon).

The Shabbat day liturgy

The theme of awareness of nature is also prominent in the Shabbat day liturgy. Being a day of rest, Shabbat gives us more time for prayer and contemplation than the weekdays. One of the main difference between the Shabbat and weekday morning liturgies is the addition of many extra Psalms and praises on Shabbat.

In the morning service, the first of the additional Psalms is Psalm 19, "The heavens declare the glory of God and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork...." (v. 2). This psalm is an invitation to lift our eyes up to the skies, stars and planets. It gives graphic expression to the might of the sun and its daily journey across the sky. The magnificence of the natural creation is also a theme in the other additional Psalms in the morning service, such as Psalms 33, 90, 97, 135 and 136, and in the prayer of Nishmat, "The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name..." Yotzer Ohr, the first blessing before the morning Shema, speaks about the sun and the moon and other celestial bodies and the angels above them.

During the wintertime on Shabbat afternoon it is customary to recite Psalm 104, which is all about the elemental natural forces of air, fire, water and earth, the sun and the moon, and all the different trees, plants, animals, birds and creatures of the sea.



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