Shabbat Liturgy

Shabbat's unique liturgy

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As a day of unique sanctity, Shabbat's liturgy is different from the standard weekday liturgy in its structure and in many of its themes. A number of the themes interwoven throughout the liturgy of Shabbat emphasize certain larger spiritual values of Judaism; in order to explore them, we must turn our attention first to a structural characteristic of Shabbat liturgy. 

Requests Yield to Thanks

On weekdays, the central portion of the 19-blessing Amidah prayer--fully 13 of its blessings--contains temporal requests, such as those for a prosperous livelihood, a bountiful year for produce, and for true justice to be enacted on earth. This entire section is replaced on Shabbat with a single blessing that emphasizes the special holiness of the day. 

shabbat musicCalled in Hebrew kedushat ha-yom ("the sanctity of the day"), this paragraph is repeated in each of the Amidah prayers recited on Shabbat--at Ma'ariv (evening service), Shaharit (morning service), at the additional Musaf service, and at Minhah on Shabbat afternoon.  In it, worshippers thank God for the gift of Shabbat and say: "Grant that we inherit Your holy gift of Shabbat forever, so that Your people Israel who sanctify Your name will always find rest on this day. Praised are You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat."

Why Not Ask for Things on Shabbat?

Why are there no individual or communal requests made of God on Shabbat?  After all, it might seem that such a holy day would be an especially propitious time to ask--and possibly receive--whatever one might request of God. An ancient midrash (rabbinic interpretation) deals with this precise question when it offers the following scenario:

"Why does a person not pray 'Blessed are You, Adonai, Healer of the people Israel' [one of the 13 weekday petitionary blessings] on Shabbat?  Lest they remember a sick loved one and then become sad on the holy Shabbat which has been set aside as a day of rest and delight. Therefore, on Shabbat we consciously choose to enjoy and celebrate the unique sanctity of the day" (from Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Vayera).

Creation, Revelation, Redemption

Turning from what is absent from the Shabbat liturgy to what is present, we find that the first significant theme is actually a pattern of three subjects that appear in subtle ways in many prayers, just as the musical theme of a fugue reappears in subtly different forms.  This first three-in-one theme, pointed out and explored by the early 20th-century German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, is that of creation, revelation, and redemption.

The creation of the world appears throughout many prayers in Jewish liturgy because it emphasizes God's role as the supreme author of all existence.  Revelation of the Torah illustrates God's active involvement in the world of human beings, especially the origins and ongoing history of the Jewish people. And finally, redemption of the Israelites from slavery serves as a harbinger of the messianic redemption, of not just the Jewish people but all humanity, in some distant time.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.