The Rabbis' Shabbat II: Enjoyment and Spiritual Fulfillment

The Rabbis used requirements and prohibitions to shape a Shabbat experience in which creative activity is set aside to make time for matters of the spirit. Second of two parts.

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Reprinted from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (transl. Michael Swirsky), published by Jason Aronson Inc.

The heart of Shabbat observance is, as I have said, refraining rather than doing: cessation. But there is also the positive dimension of the "culture" of Shabbat, the dimension that makes it, in the words of the liturgy, "a day of joy and rest, quiet and security," a day of holiness, a day when one acquires an "extra soul." 

Thus, before Shabbat begins, candles are lit, preferably on or near the dinner table. This practice, which was originally intended to make the Sabbath evening meal more enjoyable, has always had a festive quality to it: the brightness of the light gives added honor to the day. Every Jew is obliged to light candles, but over the centuries the tradition arose that it should be done, wherever possible, by the woman of the house. (There is also a beautiful custom according to which each female member of the family, even little girls, lights her own Shabbat candles). The connection between the night of Shabbat and the woman's role is a deep and ancient one, of which the candlelighting is but one part.

shabbat spiritUnlike weekday meals, those eaten on Shabbat are not for physical sustenance alone but serve to fulfill the mitzvah of Sabbath joy. It is also a mitzvah to eat three Shabbat meals: evening, noon, and late afternoon. These are "sacred meals," both in their ceremonial character and in their deeper meaning, meals in which the Jewish family, as a religious (and not merely social) unit, communites with the sanctity of the day. The first two of the three meals begin with kiddush ("sanctification"), a special benediction usually said over a cup of wine (or spirits or grape juice in the case of people who do not tolerate alcohol well). After netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing), the meal itself begins. In most Jewish communities it is customary to sing zemirot, special Sabbath hymns, at the table. This custom is not restricted to people with special musical talents; rather, each person at the table participates as best he can. The effect is to reinforce both the sense of togetherness and the element of zevah mishpahah--familial offering--appropriate to the Sabbath table.

The solemnity of the Shabbat meals, and of Shabbat in general, should not be taken to imply heaviness or gloom, nor should the element of restriction be allowed to predominate. On the contrary, festivity is of the essence. Even one who is newly bereaved or has a fresh memory of some other personal catastrophe must stop mourning when Shabbat arrives. The neshama yeterah ("extra soul") each Jew is said to acquire on Shabbat is really an augmented ability to rejoice in tranquillity, to cease doing things as if all were already done, to accept life with a feeling of wholeness and contentment. Not only is Shabbat a time to disengage oneself from workaday affairs--even reading, speaking, and thinking about them is forbidden--but when it comes to spiritual matters, too, vexation and anxious self-analysis should be avoided. The holiness of the day must be sought in a spirit of oneg Shabbat ("the joy of the Sabbath"), of pleasure, relaxation, and ease.

Shabbat should be devoted as much as possible to holy activities, which one may feel he has no free time for during the week, especially prayer and study. Thus, one who finds it inconvenient for one reason or another to attend public prayer during the week should make a special effort to do so on Shabbat. While the mitzvot of Shabbat also apply to isolated individuals, it is desirable to foster collective--familial and communal-- observance of them. In addition, certain aspects of public worship, such as the ceremonial reading of the Torah, cannot be done alone. So while it may be a long walk to the nearest synagogue, and one may not find the people there entirely congenial, it is important to make the effort to join them. Of course, synagogue attendance is not nearly as important as Shabbat observance itself. Thus the person who rides to the synagogue, in serious violation of the Sabbath laws, in effect, sacrificed the principle of cessation from labor, which is the very basis of Shabbat, in favor of an observance of secondary significance.

It is appropriate to devote a certain amount of time each Shabbat to Torah study, if possible in communal and family settings. One may not be able to cover much ground in a once-a-week session, but the fulfillment of the mitzvah consists of setting aside a significant block of time for spiritual nourishment rather than any particular intellectual achievement. Other kinds of activities--a political discussion with friends, a game of chess--may be permissible on Shabbat, but they should not be allowed to predominate. Sport per se is not considered melakhah, but the Sages forbade certain more active kinds of athletic activity because their strenuousness was not in the spirit of Shabbat. Watching commercial sporting events is forbidden because such events usually entail many kinds of chillul Shabbat ("violation of the Shabbat")--traveling, buying tickets, etc.--and in public besides. In general, it is not play or free movement that is ruled out, but activity that involves strain and effort. The issue of play on Shabbat arises most acutely, of course, in the case of children, whose main source of pleasure involves jumping and running. Because for them as well, Shabbat should be a gift and not a burden, the halakhic authorities have long been lenient toward them in such matters.

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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the author of works bringing traditional Torah scholarship and Hasidic thought to a contemporary audience. He lives in Jerusalem.