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What Is Shabbat?

What Is Shabbat?


Shabbat (also known as "Shabbos" or the "Sabbath") is the centerpiece of Jewish life, and has been so since the infancy of our nation. According to the Talmud, Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments. Shabbat is so central to Jewish lifeShabbat is the centerpiece of Jewish life that the term shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observer) is synonymous with “religious Jew” in common parlance.

Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening after nightfall. Let’s have a look at the history, importance and observances of this day.

In the Beginning

We read in the Book of Genesis that G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The sages say that on that day, G‑d created menuchah,rest, without which sustained creativity would be impossible.

After G‑d took the Children of Israel out of Egypt in the year 2448, He taught them about the Shabbat: working for six days and resting on the seventh. Shabbat is also one of the 10 Commandments that G‑d transmitted at Sinai several weeks after the exodus. Thus, Shabbat commemorates both the creation of the world and G‑d’s intervention in world affairs when he took His nation out of slavery.

Throughout the 40 years that our ancestors wandered in the desert, nourishing mannawould rain down from heaven, except on Shabbat. But no one went hungry—extra rations would fall on Friday, so that everyone would have more than enough for the holy day.

The Torah is very brief about the observance of the day, telling us that no work is to be done and no fires are to be kindled. But rabbinic tradition coupled with careful study of the Torah’s texts yields a wealth of information, much of which is found in the Talmudic tractate aptly named Shabbat.

A Special Guest

Our sages tell us that the Shabbat is a “queen,” whose regal presence graces every Jewish home for the duration of the Shabbat day. For this reason, we scrub our bodies, dress our finest and make sure our homes are in tip-top shape on Friday afternoon. According to the Talmud, we actually receive a special additional soul every Shabbat.

The prophet Isaiah foretells great delight that comes as a reward “if you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from performing your affairs on My holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the L‑rd honored, and you honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words.”1

Shabbat is so special that even our choice of words, comportment, and the items that we touch must be consistent with this holy day. This includes the admonition not to handle items known as muktzeh, which have been set aside because they generally have no use within the Shabbat lifestyle.

Things We Do

Light Candles

Since we do not light fires on Shabbat, our sages declared that every Jewish home should have candles lit before the onset of the Shabbat, so that the evening be peaceful and festive. It is customarily the woman of the house who kindles these lights. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, encouraged girls as young as three years old to light as well. The candles must be lit at least 18 minutes before sunset and should be placed near where the Shabbat meals will take place. A special blessing is said after the lighting.

Wine and Dine

The Torah commands us to “remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” The sages understand this to mean that we must verbally declare the Sabbath a holy day, so on Friday night we say a special prayer over wine in a ritual known as kiddush (sanctification). (A truncated kiddush is recited again the following day).

After kiddush, Shabbat is celebrated with a sumptuous feast. Make sure to have three large meals on Shabbat: one on Friday night, one the next day, and one smaller one in the late afternoon.

The meals begin with two whole loaves of bread, which remind us of the double portion of manna that fell every Friday. Before we break bread, we wash our hands in a specially prescribed manner.

Typical European-Jewish Shabbat fare includes gefilte fish, chicken soup, kugels and other favorites, but the Shabbat meals really can feature whatever you feel is festive and delicious. During the daytime meal, we customarily eat something warm that has been sitting on a low flame (or other heat source) since the onset of Shabbat, such as the traditional stew of beans, barley, potatoes and meat known as cholent. Note: There are many laws about cooking on Shabbat, so make sure you prepare your cholent correctly.

The meal is a delight fo the soul as well

Aside from the physical enjoyment of the feast, the Shabbat meal often includes heartwarming stories, songs and Torah thoughts so that the meal is a delight for the soul as well.

Shabbat Prayers

On Friday night, before the evening services, we welcome in the Shabbat Queen with a special collection of Psalms and the beautiful melody of Lecha Dodi. The following morning’s service is expanded to include the reading of the weekly Torah portion and the additional Musaf service.

Morning services are typically followed by a communal reception where a light luncheon is served. This is a great time to get to know people in your community, schmooze and just enjoy the company of your fellow Jews. (Just to make things confusing, this reception is also known as a kiddush.)

Saying Farewell

Just like Shabbat was welcomed in with wine, we usher it out with another cup of wine in a special ceremony known as havdalah (separation). Havdalah also includes blessings recited over fragrant spices, to revive our souls that are feeling the loss of the special gift of Shabbat, and fire, which commemorates the first fire Adam and Eve lit after the very first Shabbat.

Things We Don’t Do

The sages of the Talmud enumerate 39 forbidden creative acts that we do not do on Shabbat. The sages explain that each of these acts is a “father” that has many “offsprings” that are also forbidden due to their intrinsic similarity to the parent act.

The first group of 11 acts are related to process of making bread, from ploughing, sowing and reaping to kneading and baking. The second group is comprised of 13 steps needed to create garments, from shearing to tearing. Third come the 9 stages of scribal arts (using parchment), from trapping to writing and erasing.

The last group of acts is comprised of building and destroying, burning and extinguishing, finishing a product and transporting things in the public domain.

Since each of these 39 acts (or melachot in Hebrew) have many subcategories and interpretations, you really need to learn some of the ins and outs of Shabbat observance by reading some good books and observing Shabbat in action.

Some common activities that we may not do on Shabbat:

  • Driving
  • Turning on or off lights or operating electrical appliances (including phones)
  • Cooking
  • Carrying in the public domain (defined as public areas outside of an eruv enclosure)

Where To Start

No one can become a perfect Shabbat observer overnight, butTry it, you'll like it here are some great first steps to create a peaceful, meaningful Shabbat atmosphere:

  • Light Shabbat candles on Friday night.
  • Attend a Shabbat meal at a friend’s house. If you feel ready, host your own. Even if you are not yet ready for a long sit-down feast, have kiddush, wash and break bread.
  • Turn off the phone and TV for the 25 hours of Shabbat. (It may sound impossible, but you may just find that you’ll look forward to unplugging one day a week.)
  • Attend Shabbat services on either Friday night or Shabbat morning.

Through increasing your Shabbat observance, you’ll create a space to connect with G‑d, family and friends. Try it, you’ll like it.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
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Discussion (14)
March 25, 2017
Very interesting article. I enjoyed reading of things observed on the Sabbath. I am interested to know how these rules came about. Are they listed in the Talmud?
Jan Thompson
Green valley AZ.
March 20, 2017
RE: Desecrating the Sabbath
The punishment still exists, it's in the Torah - it can't be changed. However, the Beit Din system, to try and convict an offender, no longer has jurisdiction over capital cases. This is because the Beit Din can only engage in capital punishment when the Sanhedrin is in session. Although the Beit Din cannot punish an offender, Hashem has His way of holding people accountable.
Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for
Folsom, CA
March 17, 2017
Desecrating the Sabbath
Exodus 31:14-15 - "Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death." Does the punishment for 'desecrating the Sabbath' still exist? If not, who had the authority to eliminate the repercussion but not the commandment?
Round Rock
September 4, 2016
I like Shabbat, but I'm a muslim
September 25, 2015
Why is the word God written as G-d in this whole piece?
April 13, 2015
Did Adam, Eve, Noa and Abraham keep the Sabbath? Or was it only from exodus that man started keeping the Sabbath?
February 19, 2015
I was raised in a totally unobservant even agnostic home so this is new to me. I am in charge of the candle-lighting ceremony at my assisted living residence and I cannot say how much joy it gives me to do the blessing in Hebrew surrounded by friends. I agree with the Rebbe that you meet people at their level of observance and gently move them toward greater observance rather than using cattle prods. It is a matter of individual sensitivity and I am glad I have found my own level.
January 29, 2015
Shabbat is a special time for Jewish people
September 9, 2014
did shabbat ceremony begin with the seventh day or with the ten commandments?
August 9, 2014
Friday as a resting day
We muslims are obligated by Allah to stop working, close businesses and go for a prayer on Friday usually called as Jummah Prayer. I just learnt about the concept of Sabbath and its quite surprising that its kind of more or less a similar concept. good to find some more or less common concept on top of the projected differences.