1. Creation

“In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

For six days G‑d created. “G‑d saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good;

it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. The heavens and the earth were completed, and all their host. G‑d completed on the seventh day His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

“G‑d blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because in it He rested from all his work which G‑d had created, to make.” (Genesis 1:31–2:3)

Hebron, 18th century BCE
2. Sarah’s Shabbat Lamp

(c) Michoel Muchnik
(c) Michoel Muchnik

Thirty-eight centuries ago, Abraham and Sarah embarked on a journey to bring the idea and morals of monotheism to a predominantly pagan world. Their journey took them from their native Ur Casdim to Charan (Mesopotamia), and from there to the land of Canaan, where they settled first in Hebron and later in Beersheba. They pitched their tents at the desert crossroads, and offered food, drink and lodging to all wayfarers of every tribe and creed. Wherever they went, they taught the truth of the One G‑d, creator of heaven and earth. (Genesis ch. 12; Talmud, Sotah 10a; Midrashim)

In Sarah’s tent, a special miracle proclaimed that the Divine Presence dwelled therein: the lamp she lit every Friday evening, in honor of the divine day of rest, miraculously kept burning all week, until the next Friday eve. When Sarah died (1676 BCE), the miracle of her Shabbat lamp ceased. But on the day of Sarah’s passing, Rebecca was born. And when Rebecca was brought to Sarah’s tent as the destined wife of Sarah’s son, Isaac, the miracle of the lamp returned. Once again, the light of Shabbat filled the tent of the matriarch of Israel and radiated its holiness to the entire week. (Bereishit Rabbah 60)

Egypt, 1373 BCE
3. A Day of Rest

Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery
Art by Zalman Kleinman | Courtesy Rosa Kleinman | Via Zev Markowitz / Chai Art Gallery

Sarah and Rebecca’s descendants are now in Egypt, slaves of a cruel king. Moses, their destined leader, is rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, and is raised in the royal palace. “Then it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers, and saw their suffering.” (Exodus 2:11)

The Midrash relates: “Moses saw that they had no rest, so he went to Pharaoh and said: ‘If one has a slave and he does not give him rest one day in the week, the slave will die. These are your slaves—if you do not give them one day a week, they will die.’ Said Pharaoh: ‘Go and do with them as you say.’ So Moses ordained for them the Shabbat day for rest.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:32)

Marah, 24 Nissan, 1313 BCE
4. Mitzvah at Marah

G‑d appears to Moses in a burning bush, and empowers him to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt. After ten plagues and much nudging, Pharaoh finally lets them go. They cross the (miraculously split) Sea of Reeds, and come to Marah. “There G‑d gave them statutes and laws”—including the commandment to observe the Shabbat. (Exodus 15:25; Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b)

Zin Desert, 15 Iyar, 1313 BCE
5. Double Manna

A month after the Exodus, the matzah that the Children of Israel took with them from Egypt was finished. For the next forty years, the Israelites were sustained by the manna. “In the morning, there was a layer of dew around the camp. The layer of dew went up, and behold, on the surface of the desert, a fine, bare substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘It is manna,’ because they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them: ‘This is the bread that G‑d has given you to eat.’” (Exodus 16:13–15)

The manna came each day, and provided that day’s precise needs. “Whoever gathered much did not have more, and whoever gathered little did not have less; each one according to his eating capacity, they gathered.” Indeed, it was forbidden to leave manna from one day to the next. (Exodus 16:18–19)

Every day, that is, except Friday. “It came to pass on the sixth day that they gathered a double portion of bread, two omers for each one. The leaders of the community came and reported it to Moses. And [Moses] said to them: ‘That is what G‑d has said: Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Shabbat to G‑d. Bake whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest leave over to keep until morning.’ So they left it over until morning . . . And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat to G‑d; today you will not find it in the field.’” (Exodus 16:22–26)

“‘See, G‑d has given you the Shabbat. Therefore, on the sixth day, He gives you bread for two days. Let each man remain in his place; let no man leave his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:29–30)

Today, we place two challah loaves on the Shabbat table and cover them with a cloth, to represent the dew-covered double portion of manna that came down from heaven in honor of Shabbat.

Mount Sinai, 6 Sivan, 1313 BCE
6. “Remember” and “Keep”

“Moses brought the people out toward G‑d from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked, because G‑d had descended upon it in fire . . . and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger . . . And G‑d spoke all these words, saying . . .”

Ten Commandments were spoken that day at Sinai, ten mitzvot that form the core of the Torah. The fourth commandment concerned the Shabbat:

“Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor. But the seventh day is a Shabbat to the L‑rd your G‑d; you shall do no work—neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your sojourner who is in your cities. For [in] six days G‑d made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, G‑d blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it.” (Exodus 19:17–20:1; 20:8–11)

When Moses reviews the Ten Commandments (in Deuteronomy ch. 5), the fourth commandment begins: “Keep the Shabbat day . . .” The Talmud explains: “Zachor (‘remember’) and shamor (‘keep’) were said by G‑d in a single utterance—something which the human mouth cannot articulate, and the human ear cannot hear . . .”

We remember the Shabbat by proclaiming its sanctity over a cup of wine in the kiddush and havdalah rituals; we keep the Shabbat by abstaining from work. But the “positive” and “negative” aspects of Shabbat are one—two faces of its singular essence—as demonstrated by the two-as-one divine utterance.

Sinai Desert, 11 Tishrei, 1313 BCE
7. The Tabernacle: Work Defined

“You shall do no work” was the divine command. But what constitutes “work”?

Four months after the revelation at Sinai came the request from G‑d, “They shall make for me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell amidst them,” accompanied by detailed instructions as to how this sanctuary is to be constructed. And on that same occasion, the commandment to keep the Shabbat was reiterated: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to G‑d” (Exodus 35:2). Teaching us—explain our sages—two things: 1) That the work we are enjoined and empowered to do six days a week is, in essence, the work of making a home for G‑d out of the materials of our physical lives; 2) That this work is the work we must cease on Shabbat.

Studying G‑d’s detailed instructions to Moses for the making of the Sanctuary, the Mishnah (Shabbat 73a) identifies thirty-nine melachot—categories of creative work—that were involved in the making of the Sanctuary. These include: all stages of agricultural work, from plowing and sowing to reaping and winnowing and baking; weaving and sewing, writing, building, and lighting a fire.

The 39 melachot and their derivatives form the basis and core of the laws of Shabbat rest.

Sinai Desert, 11 Tishrei, 1313 BCE
8. Shabbat Torah Reading Instituted

To convey G‑d’s instructions regarding the making of the Sanctuary and the observance of Shabbat, “Moses gathered together the entire community of the Children of Israel.” in doing so, “Moses instituted for all generations that Jews should gather in their synagogues to read from the Torah on Shabbat”—as Jews throughout the world do to this very day. (Exodus 35:1; Yalkut Shimoni on this verse)

The annual Shabbat Torah reading cycle is more than a weekly lesson; it’s how we “live with the times”—finding in the current week’s Torah portion (“Parshah”) direction and inspiration for every event and action in our daily lives. (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)

The Holy Land, 2nd century BCE
9. The Invention of Cholent

No one knows who was the first person to put up a pot of cholent on Friday afternoon. But this trademark Shabbat dish has its origins in the dispute between the Torah-faithful Jews and a breakaway Jewish sect called the Tzedukim.

The Tzedukim (also known as the Sadducees) accepted the Written Torah but rejected the Torah She-Baal Peh (“Oral Torah”)—the traditional interpretation of the Torah which Moses received at Sinai, and which was handed down through the generations from teacher to disciple. When the Tzedukim read in the Torah, “You shall not burn any fire in all your homes on the Shabbat day” (Exodus 35:3), they understood the verse literally—and spent the entire Shabbat in the cold and dark. Their Shabbat meals were bereft of the glow of candlelight, and while the food cooked before Shabbat may have retained some of its warmth for the Friday night meal, their Shabbat day meal consisted of cold food only. The traditional interpretation, however, is that it is forbidden to light a fire on Shabbat (the creation of fire being one of the 39 melachot), but one can certainly derive benefit from fire that was lit before Shabbat.

Thus, the Jews who were faithful to the Sinaitic tradition made it a point to include at least one hot dish in their Shabbat daytime meal, which was cooked and placed on the fire before Shabbat and simmered on a covered flame1 all night long—both to honor and pleasure the Shabbat, and to express their rejection of the Tzedukim’s false interpretation. Hence cholent: a stew (typically of meat, beans and potatoes, but also made with a great variety of stewable foods) that is eaten in the daytime meal.

“Caesar asked Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya: Why do Shabbat foods smell so good? Said he to him: We have a special spice, ‘Shabbat’ is its name . . .” (Talmud, Shabbat 119a)

Israel and Babylonia, 100 BCE–300 CE
10. Preparing for Shabbat

(c) Shoshannah Brombacher
(c) Shoshannah Brombacher

By instruction as well as by personal example, the sages of the Talmud taught to honor and pleasure the Shabbat.

“It was said of the sage Shammai that all his days he ate for the honor of the Shabbat. How so? For when he found a prime specimen, he would say, ‘This is for Shabbat.’ Then, if he found a better one, he would set aside that one for Shabbat, and eat the first one . . .” (Talmud, Beitzah 16b)

“Said R. Judah in the name of Rav: So was the custom of R. Judah bar Ila’i: On Friday, they would bring before him a tub filled with hot water, and he would wash his face, hands and feet; he then wrapped himself in fringed sheets, and would have the appearance of an angel of G‑d.” (Talmud, Shabbat 25b)

Rava would personally prepare the fish for Shabbat. Rav Chisda chopped vegetables. Rabbah and Rav Yosef chopped wood. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak would be seen running about on Friday, carrying bundles on his shoulders. Many of these were wealthy men who had numerous servants to do their work; yet they insisted on personally toiling in honor of the Shabbat. (Talmud, Shabbat 119a; Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Shabbat)

Worldwide, 142 BCE to date
11. Sacrifice and Martyrdom

Shabbat is the eternal soulmate of the people of Israel, and our source of strength and endurance. This was recognized by friend and foe alike. Throughout the generations, our enemies have repeatedly attempted to take away the Shabbat from us.

When the Syrian-Greeks ruled the Holy Land, they forbade Shabbat observance. Many Jews fled the cities to live in the caves of the Judean hills, so that they could keep the day of rest. Many were discovered and killed. Finally, the Jews revolted and fought for the right to keep their religion. Their miraculous victory is celebrated to this day with the festival of Chanukah. (Book of Maccabees; Talmud)

The Jew continued to sacrifice for Shabbat throughout the long night of exile. In Rome, Jewish slaves were beaten for refusing to work on Shabbat. In Inquisition-era Spain, secret Jews (“anusim”) gathered in underground cellars to light the Shabbat candles and make kiddush. Under Soviet rule, Jews suffered hunger, imprisonment, exile to Siberia and worse for being “religious parasites”—i.e., people who wouldn’t work on Shabbat. Even in Auschwitz, Jews went to superhuman lengths to sanctify the holy day.

And yet it has also been said that “more than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

United States, 1920–1950
12. The Shomer Shabbat Movement

In the decades that closed the 19th century and opened the 20th, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the pogroms, persecutions and crushing poverty of Eastern Europe in search of a better life in America. But the “New World” offered its opportunities at a steep spiritual price. Shabbat was still a regular workday in the United States; “blue laws” forbade the opening of businesses on Sunday; and the “melting pot” credo preached the abandonment of “non-American” religions and cultures. A primary casualty was the Shabbat. Many Jews felt that they could not earn a living in America without working on Shabbat; others saw it as a hindrance to the dream of assimilation within, and acceptance by, American society. The Jew’s thousands-year-long tenacious hold on the Shabbat was slipping.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the tide began to turn. Jewish labor leaders campaigned for a five-day workweek. Rallies were held in support of Shabbat observance. Consumer groups formed, pledging to support businesses that kept the Shabbat; soon Shomer Shabbat (“Shabbat Observant”) signs were being displayed in shop windows. Shabbat clubs were conducted for Jewish children. Slowly, the momentum built, laying the groundwork for large-scale return to Judaism and Shabbat observance in the decades to come.

Israel, 1948
13. Shabbat Goes Legal

Though conceived as a “secular” state, the modern state of Israel passed a law, shortly after its establishment, declaring Shabbat the official day of rest. In most localities, commercial businesses are closed and public transportation does not operate on Shabbat; government agencies and government-controlled corporations are officially Shabbat observant.

New York, 1974
14. The Shabbat Candle-Lighting Campaign

In 1974, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, launched a worldwide Shabbat Candles campaign, to encourage Jewish women and girls to bring the light of Shabbat into their home by fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evening, 18 minutes before sunset. In particular, the Rebbe campaigned to restore the age-old custom (dating back to the matriarch Rebecca) that young girls, too, should light their own candle. In a time of increasing darkness, the Rebbe declared, we must respond with an increasing of light.

In the years since, the Rebbe’s followers and emissaries across the globe have distributed millions of Shabbat candle-lighting kits, and have introduced countless thousands of Jewish women and girls—and their families—to the beauty and holiness of Shabbat.

The Immediate Future, Everywhere
15. The World to Come

(c) Michoel Muchnik
(c) Michoel Muchnik

Shabbat, our sages tell us, is “a taste of the World to Come.” As the six-day workweek culminates in Shabbat, so too will the six millennia of our work and toil to make the world a home for G‑d culminate in the messianic era—“the day that is wholly Shabbat and tranquility, for life everlasting.” (Talmud, Berachot 57b; Nachmanides on Genesis 1; Grace After Meals)

“And at that time, there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For goodness will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. The entire occupation of the world will be only to know G‑d . . . For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, as the waters cover the sea.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:5)

May it be now.