Sabbath, Jewish

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Sabbath, Jewish

The seventh day of the week, in the Jewish calendar, is known as Shabbat or Shabbos. Extending from shortly before sunset on Friday evening until dark on Saturday night (because the Jewish day begins at sunset), its celebration has been a hallmark of Jewish practice for thousands of years. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), observance of the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and is mentioned numerous other times as well.

In particular, the biblical texts speak of "remembering" the Sabbath and of "guarding" it, mentioning restrictions on the work of building, gathering food, traveling, and making fires on that day. The oral tradition of Judaism over the centuries specified the details of the celebration as well as the restrictions. The mystical tradition honored Shabbat as a "Queen," the feminine aspect of divinity, manifest in the world through the Jewish people, especially on this day. Shabbat, the day of rest and peace, is honored above all other ritual observances and is among the first things taught to a prospective convert to Judaism.

In contemporary American culture the day is honored in different ways, depending on the Jewish subculture or denomination to which one belongs. However, there are some near-universals. For virtually all Jews who have some form of religious observance, Friday night is accompanied by the ceremonial lighting of candles and a special meal, initiated with a ceremonial blessing of wine and two loaves of bread. Synagogue services are also offered in most Jewish communities, usually on Friday night and Saturday morning, unless the community is too small to support weekly services. Beyond this, observance varies widely.

In the most observant segments of Judaism (Orthodox), the Sabbath is a day of complete abstinence from work as well as a joyous celebration. What constitutes work, aside from the obvious pursuit of one's occupation, is carefully defined in Jewish law. In modern culture, for example, the observant Jew will not drive or ride in a car, answer the telephone, write, or use a computer. All cooking must be done before Shabbat begins, but it is permitted to keep food warm in certain ways. One must walk to synagogue; thus the residences of Orthodox Jews tend to be clustered in proximity to their prayer communities.

In addition, observant Jews customarily have three long, relaxed meals—one on Friday night, one at midday on Saturday, and one at twilight. The meals often include traditional foods such as braided bread (hallah), chicken soup, fish, meat, and favorite foods of the children. Having guests in one's home is common, as is singing and talking about religious topics at the table. Conversation about business or ordinary weekday activities is discouraged. Sexual relations between husband and wife are considered a special delight of Shabbat night. Prayer services are conducted in a slower, more relaxed manner than on weekdays, and gatherings for conversation or Torah study are common in these communities. Adults commonly take a nap in the afternoon. Shabbat ends, an hour or more after sunset, with a special ceremony known as Havdalah, honoring the distinction between the seventh day and the six working days. A party to "escort the Sabbath Queen" out is sometimes held as well.

Less observant communities include some but not all of these practices. For example, Conservative Judaism allows its members to drive to synagogue on Shabbat and to use electricity but does not permit business to be done on this day. Reform Judaism, which regards Jewish law as optional and originally eliminated most ritual observances, encourages Shabbat as a way of gathering family and community together. Business activities are discouraged but permitted in certain contexts—for example, a visiting lecturer might sell his books at the synagogue on Shabbat. In recent years the Reform movement has urged on its members more awareness and acceptance of the importance of Shabbat in Jewish life.

In some contemporary communities the spirit of Shabbat is more important than the letter of the law. While a general framework of abstaining from weekday activities is maintained, the emphasis is on a deep experience of the Sabbath. The theme is completeness and peace, as in the traditional greeting of the day, "Shabbat shalom" (Sabbath peace). (The Hebrew word for peace has the same root as the word "complete.") In alignment with traditional Judaism, practitioners try to make Shabbat "a taste of the world to come"—that is, the future messianic age of perfection. Conflict and arguments are to be avoided, worship should be intense and devotional, and singing and dancing are used to lift the mood of those present in the celebration. Since Shabbat is an aspect of divinity, the experience of it is understood to bring a person closer to God. The rediscovery of Shabbat by many Jews was a source of inspiration for liturgical renewal in the late twentieth century as composers, cantors, and designers of ritual found new ways of expressing the spiritual experience of the day.

Another practice that became common in a variety of settings is the "Shabbaton," an organized synagogue/community experience that brings people together outside their nuclear families. Whether in a regular synagogue or a retreat setting, a Shabbaton frequently features guest lecturers, community meals, and time for study and interaction. For example, a synagogue might organize a Shabbaton to attract newcomers and guests who are not part of the regular community, or an organization might host a Shabbaton for teenagers. By offering an intensified experience of learning and community interaction, people can experience Shabbat outside the limitations of their own homes.

Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath a "cathedral in time." This captures much of the spirit of contemporary Shabbat celebration: an elaborate architecture of communal energy, using the materials of common worship, common meals, and the natural cycle of the day through evening, night, morning, afternoon, and twilight. Each Shabbat is differentiated according to the customs and preferences of each community but is recognizable to everyone as a unique and distinctive religious structure. A Jew familiar with the basic structure of Shabbat can go to almost any Jewish community anywhere in the world—except perhaps the least observant—and find essentially the same rhythm and sense of purpose to the day.

Historically, a few non-Jewish groups have observed a Sabbath on Saturday, most notably the Seventh-Day Adventists. However, they did not incorporate Jewish law or mysticism into their observance. In very recent times a few non-Jews have proposed returning to a concept of a Sabbath that is inspired by contemporary Judaism: a spiritual day of rest designed to create a rhythm of life more in tune with a greater consciousness.

See alsoAttendance; Belonging, Religious; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Liturgy and Worship; Practice; Prayer; Religious Communities; Religious Experience; Ritual; Synagogue; Temple; Torah.


Heschel, Abraham Joseph. The Sabbath. 1996.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Sabbath: Day of Eternity. n.d.

Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred RhythmsofRest. 1994.

Zborowski, Mark, and Elizabeth Herzog. LifeIswithPeople: The Culture of the Shtetl. Part 1. 1995.

Tamar Frankiel