Understanding the Jewish Sabbath
Of the many observances and practices of Judaism, the Jewish Sabbath or Jewish
Shabbat (in Hebrew) is the best known and most commonly practiced. The Jewish
Shabbat is a day of rest at the end of the week, beginning on sundown Friday
night, and ending on Saturday night, when three stars appear in the sky. It
is an eagerly awaited chance for the Jewish people to set aside so many of their
common concerns and worries and enjoy higher pursuits.
What is the Jewish Sabbath?
The Jewish Sabbath is a day of celebration as well as one of prayer. It is
the only rituals laid down by the Ten Commandments and is considered to be one
of the most important ritual observed by the Jewish faith. The day itself is
a day of rest and enrichment. The word “Shabbat” derives from a
root word in Hebrew that means “to cease, to end, to rest.”
In Exodus, where it commands to remember Shabbat, it is more than just a reminder
to observe the day. It is to remember the meaning and significance of Shabbat.
It is written in Exodus 20:11 that the seventh day shall be set aside as the
Sabbath day. By resting on this day, you are emulating the divine offering of
creation and rest. If God was able to rest for a day after creating the heavens
and the earth, why should we be too important to do the same?
Lighting the Jewish Shabbat Candles
On Shabbat, two candles are lit for the two references to Shabbat in the Bible:
Deuteronomy 5:12 - "Observe the Sabbath," and Exodus 20:8 –
“Remember the Sabbath."
After the lighting of the candles, the woman covers her eyes with her hands,
waves her hands over the candles, as in welcoming Shabbat into the home, and
recites the following blessing:
"Barukh atah Adonai E1oheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav
v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat"
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made
us holy through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”
A History of Jewish Sabbath Traditions
The Jewish Sabbath is more than a day of rest though. It is a day of remembrance
and of freedom. Slaves did not receive days off in Egypt. The leisure of taking
a day off to commemorate the decree of the Fourth Commandment is a reminder
of the freedom we enjoy to do so.
The Jewish Shabbat is a day of rest, and for that reason there are numerous
works that are not permitted under Jewish law. This does not solely mean physical
labor and employment though. The word used in Hebrew to describe work is “melachah”
which does translate directly as “work.” However, the word more
literally means the kind of work that is creative or shows control over surroundings.
The word itself is often only used in the context of Shabbat as well as the
building of the sanctuary. From that, there arose 39 categories of work that
are forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath, those types that were involved in building
the sanctuary. Furthermore, any related act or act using the tools of these
39 acts is forbidden. See below for the 39 categories of activity
prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath.
Typical Practices of the Jewish Sabbath
Traditionally, Shabbat begins at sundown, as referenced by the Jewish belief
that the day begins at sunset. Actual candle lighting times though can very
from location to location. Within 18 minutes of sundown, the Shabbat candles
are to be lit and the blessing recited. The woman of the household is to perform
this ritual, lighting two candles for the two commandments to remember and observe.
There is a traditional 45 minute service held on Friday night for Shabbat which
many families choose to attend, followed by a leisurely dinner. Kiddush is recited
over the wine, sanctifying Shabbat and another prayer to bless the food is recited
over the Challah, a traditional egg-bread. Once dinner is complete, the birkat
ha-mazon is recited and the rest of the evening is given over to casual talk
and study of the Torah before sleep.
The day of the Jewish Sabbath itself consists of morning services, followed
by another Kiddush prayer and a leisurely midday meal. More study of the torah
and leisurely, relaxed activities fill the rest of the day before Shabbat ends
As the most important day of any week of the Jewish calendar, the Jewish Sabbath
is practiced by millions, observing the freedom of the Jewish people and the
miracle of creation.
39 Categories of Activity Prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath
4. Binding sheaves
12. Shearing wool
13. Washing wool
14. Beating wool
15. Dyeing wool
18. Making two loops
19. Weaving two threads
20. Separating two threads
23. Sewing stitches
29. Scraping hide
30. Marking hides
31. Cutting hide to shape
32. Writing two or more letters
33. Erasing two or more letters
36. Extinguishing a fire
37. Kindling a fire
38. Putting the finishing touch on an object
39. Transporting an object between a private domain and the public domain, or
for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.
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