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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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.