Sabbath for a Devout Jew

Note: This is compiled from many sources by Daniel Baker, a goy, who stands responsible for the statements made.

The Sabbath is the most important ritual observance in Judaism, also one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. Like all Jewish days, it begins at sunset (See Genesis 1) every Friday night and lasts 24 hours until three starts appear on Saturday evening.

Jews believe it is a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, when we set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits. In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabat is described as a bride or queen, as in the popular Shabat hymn L'cha Dodi Likrat Kallah (Come, my beloved, to meet the [Sabbath] Bride). It is said "more than Israel has kept Shabat; Shabat has kept Israel."

Shabat is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day. Shabat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word "Shabat" means to cease or to rest. Shabat is not specifically a day of prayer, though Jews do spend a substantial amount of time in synagogue praying. On Shabat, Jews eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion.

What happens on the Sabbath? The classical Jew keeps the Sabbath both as a memorial of creation and as a remembrance of the redemption from Egypt. The primary liturgy of the Sabbath is the reading of the Scripture lesson from the Torah in the synagogue service. So the three chief themes-creation, revelation, and redemption-are combined in the weekly observance of the seventh day, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

The Sabbath is protected by negative rules. One must not work; one must not pursue mundane concerns. According to Torah, no one should do physical labor, buy or sell or expend effort on Shabat. But the Sabbath is also adorned with less concrete but affirmative laws: One must rejoice; one must rest.

How do pious Jews keep the Sabbath? All week long they look forward to it, and the anticipation enhances the ordinary days. By Friday afternoon they have bathed, put on their Sabbath garments, and set asides the affairs of the week. At home, the family-husband, wife, children-will have cleaned, cooked, and arranged their finest table. It is common to invite guests for the Sabbath meals.

In the lives of observant Jews, two Shabat candles are lit and a blessing is recited no later than eighteen minutes before sunset. This ritual, performed by the woman of the house, officially marks the beginning of Shabat. The candles represent the two commandments: zachor (remember) and shamor (observe). The family then attends a brief evening service followed by dinner. Before dinner, a Bar-Mitzvahed Jewish male of the house recites Kiddush, a prayer over wine sanctifying Shabat. The usual prayer for eating bread is recited over two loaves of challah, a sweet, eggy bread shaped in a braid. After dinner, the birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited.

The next morning Shabat services begin around 9 AM and continue until about noon. After services, the family says kiddush again and has another leisurely, festive meal. Shabat ends at nightfall, when three stars are visible, approximately 40 minutes after sunset. At the conclusion of Shabat the family performs a concluding ritual called Havdalah (separation, division). Blessings are recited over wine, spices and candles. Then a blessing is recited regarding the division between the sacred and the secular, between Shabat and the working days, etc.

To the Sabbath-observing Jew, the Sabbath is the chief sign of God's grace.

Sabbath morning liturgy includes this phrase: "For the seventh day did you choose and sanctify as the most pleasant of days and you called it a memorial to the works of creation."

The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant. It is a gift of grace that neither idolaters nor evil people may enjoy… It is the most pleasant of days. Keeping the Sabbath is living in God's kingdom.

That the way in which they accomplish such a routine change of pace may be made the very heart and soul of their spiritual existence is the single absolutely unique element in Judaic tradition. Certainly those who compare the Sabbath of Judaism to the somber, supposedly joyless Sunday of the Calvinists know nothing of what the Sabbath has meant and continues to mean to Jews.

Rabbi Abraham Hershel includes in a statement of the laws of the Sabbath the following: "not to do anything that might lead to unhappiness." Only a family whose life focuses upon the Sabbath week by week, year by year, from birth to death, can know the sanctity of which the theologian speaks the sacred rest to which the prayers refer. The heart and soul of this tradition cannot be described, only experienced. By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, Jews remember and acknowledge that God is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. They also emulate the divine example by refraining from work on the seventh day.

Freedom. What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It's all about freedom. By resting on Shabat, people are reminded that they are free. Shabat frees from our weekday concerns, much as the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Jews recite kiddush (the prayer over wine) sanctifying Shabat on Friday nights at sundown as a memorial of the work in the beginning and a remembrance of the Exodus.