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Meaning of Shabbat

 

The Sabbath (or Shabbat, as it is called in Hebrew) is one of the best known and least understood
of all Jewish observances. People who do not observe Shabbat think of it as a day filled with stifling
restrictions, or as a day of prayer. But to those who observe Shabbat, it is treated as a precious gift
from G-d, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits. In Jewish literature, poetry and
music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen,as in the popular Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi Likrat
Kallah (come, my beloved, to meet the [Sabbath] bride).

Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted
in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more important than Yom
Kippur. This is clear from the fact that more aliyot (opportunities for congregants to be called up to the
Torah) are given on Shabbat than on any other day.

Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word "Shabbat" comes from the root
Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.

Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Although we do pray on Shabbat, and spend a substantial
amount of time in synagogue praying, prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week.
Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. To say that Shabbat is a day of prayer is no more
accurate than to say that Shabbat is a day of feasting: we eat every day, but on  Shabbat, we eat more
elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat.

Shabbat involves two interrelated commandments: to remember (zakhor) Shabbat, and to observe (shamor)
Shabbat.

Zakhor: To Remember

Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it (Hebrew: Zakhor et yom ha-Shabbat l'kad'sho) -Exodus 20:8

We are commanded to remember Shabbat; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to
observe Shabbat.   It also means to remember the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of
creation and as a commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 20:11, after the Fourth Commandment is first instituted, G-d explains, "because for six days, the
L-rd made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested;
therefore, the L-rd blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it." By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying
it, we remember and acknowledge that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also
emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d did. If G-d's work can be set
aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?

In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we
must remember on Shabbat: "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d
brought you forth from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd your G-d
commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."

What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? Freedom. In ancient times, leisure was
confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on Shabbat, we are reminded that we
are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and
schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to
provide for our families and ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors
were freed from slavery in Egypt.

We remember these two meanings of Shabbat when we recite kiddush (the prayer over wine sanctifying
Shabbat or a holiday). Friday night kiddush refers to Shabbat as both zikaron l'ma'aseih v'rei'shit (a memorial
of the work in the beginning) and zeikher litzi'at Mitz'rayim (a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).

Shamor: To Observe

Observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it (Hebrew: Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat l'kad'sho) -Deuteronomy 5:12
Of course, no discussion of Shabbat would be complete without a discussion of the work that is forbidden on
Shabbat. This is another aspect of Shabbat that is grossly misunderstood by people who do not observe it.  

Most Americans see the word "work" and think of it in the English sense of the word: physical labor and effort,
or employment. Under this definition, turning on a light would be permitted, because it does not require effort,
but a rabbi would not be permitted to lead Shabbat services, because leading services is his employment.
Jewish law prohibits the former and permits the latter. Many Americans therefore conclude that Jewish law
doesn't make any sense.

The problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the definition that Americans are using. The Torah does not prohibit
"work" in the 20th century English sense of the word. The Torah prohibits "melachah" (Mem-Lamed-Alef-Kaf
-Hei), which is usually translated as "work," but does not mean precisely the same thing as the English word. Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must understand the word "melachah."

Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your
environment. The word may be related to "melekh" (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The quintessential example of
melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d's work did not require a great physical effort: he spoke, and it was done.

The word melachah is rarely used in scripture outside of the context of Shabbat and holiday restrictions. The
only other repeated use of the word is in the discussion of the building of the sanctuary and its vessels in the
wilderness. Notably, the Shabbat restrictions are reiterated during this discussion, thus we can infer that the
work of creating the sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, the rabbis concluded that the work
prohibited on Shabbat is the same as the work of creating the sanctuary. They found 39 categories of
forbidden acts, all of which are types of work that were needed to build the sanctuary:

Sowing
Plowing
Reaping
Binding sheaves
Threshing
Winnowing
Selecting
Grinding
Sifting
Kneading
Baking
Shearing wool
Washing wool
Beating wool
Dyeing wool
Spinning
Weaving
Making two loops
Weaving two threads
Separating two threads


All of these tasks are prohibited, as well as any task that operates by the same principle or has the same
purpose. In addition, the rabbis have prohibited handling any implement that is intended to perform one of the
above purposes (for example, a hammer, a pencil or a match) unless the tool is needed for a permitted
purpose (using a hammer to crack nuts when nothing else is available) or needs to be moved to do something
permitted (moving a pencil that is sitting on a prayer book), or in certain other limited circumstances. Objects
that may not be handled on Shabbat are referred to as "muktzeh," which means, "that which is set aside,"
because you set it aside (and don't use it unnecessarily) on Shabbat.

The rabbis have also prohibited travel, buying and selling, and other weekday tasks that would interfere with
the spirit of Shabbat. The use of electricity is prohibited because it serves the same function as fire or some
of the other prohibitions, or because it is technically considered to be "fire."

The issue of the use of an automobile on Shabbat, so often argued by non-observant Jews, is not really an
issue at all for observant Jews. The automobile is powered by an internal combustion engine, which operates
by burning gasoline and oil, a clear violation of the Torah prohibition against kindling a fire. In addition, the
movement of the car would constitute transporting an object in the public domain, another violation of a
Torah prohibition, and in all likelihood the car would be used to travel a distance greater than that permitted
by rabbinical prohibitions. For all these reasons, and many more, the use of an automobile on Shabbat is
clearly not permitted.

As with almost all of the commandments, all of these Shabbat restrictions can be violated if necessary to
save a life.

 

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Fri, December 14 2018 6 Tevet 5779