Shabbat, the Sabbath day, is considered a pillar of the Jewish faith.1 It has been described as an “island in time,” a chance to recharge spiritual vigor. Throughout the week, man focuses his attention on his business affairs, toiling to make a living and provide for his family. Once a week there is an opportunity to refocus on who he is and what is really important in life.

At first glance it seems like the Sabbath is merely a good idea, an opportunity to rest up and recharge physically and spiritually. While these aspects are certainly a part of the package, the Sabbath plays one of the most central roles in the Jewish faith, and is in fact even one of the Ten Commandments. Why the centrality of this day? Why is a mere “day off” an obligation at all, and given prominence and stature in no less a place than the Ten Commandments? Why not simply take a rest day when one gets tired or overburdened?

The Sabbath is Rationally Pleasing

The concept of ‘work’ is a fascinating paradox. On the one hand it represents freedom, in that the ability to work gives people feelings of dignity and accomplishment. It is a way of expressing one’s self and revealing innate talents and waking up with a purpose can give a person definition and galvanize him to accomplish many great achievements. It is for this reason that people who do not necessarily need the funds continue keeping a job, and why many refuse to retire. On the other hand, it is also easy for one to become a slave to his job, making work the center of his life or his main identity. For the sake of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance in this area is essential.

Taking a break to regroup and refocus is of utmost importance in maintaining this balance. In modern society it is becoming seemingly more and more difficult to actually do this. He left work, but work did not leave him. Because of cell phones, email, and internet it is almost impossible to disconnect. Even when trying to take a break, life and work trail behind. It has become possible to leave a vacation not feeling refreshed. He never really rebooted, he just changed locations.

Professor Henri Baruk was a French psychiatrist and director at L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne, University of Paris, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine in Paris. He once remarked that the Jewish Sabbath is truly beneficial, even on a practical level. He said, “The modern people are slaves of work, and of pleasure—people incapable of stopping for one single day to think. They believe themselves obligated, on the day of rest, to exhaust themselves with their automobiles and are the slaves of annual vacations, often returning from them ill. Such vacations may represent for many a goal of the whole year, but medically and psychologically, they are less beneficial than the weekly repose of the Sabbath.”2 Speaking from a purely secular vantage point, the German historian of medicine Karl Sudhoff once said, “Had Judaism given nothing more to mankind than the establishment of a weekly day of rest, we should still be forced to proclaim her one of the greatest benefactors of humanity.”3

This is also a recurring theme in a book by former Senator Joe Lieberman. Senator Lieberman, who is a Sabbath observant Jew, wrote, “…that in our harried and meaning-starved culture [the Sabbath] cries out to be rediscovered and enjoyed.” He eloquently adds that the purpose of the day is not, as one may think, “to recharge our batteries so we can work harder,” but instead “to recharge our souls so we can live better.”4

One of the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are the fundamental principles of Jewish living. On the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the mandates that had similar themes were grouped together. The first five commandments refer to the relationship between man and G‑d, and the second five to the relationship between man and man.5 Observing and remembering the Sabbath day is the fourth of the Ten Commandments, immediately following the prohibitions of idol worship and blasphemy. Because of its placement, we learn that Sabbath observance plays a pivotal role in our relationship with G‑d. How so?

The Ten Commandments are actually mentioned twice in the Torah; once in the book of Exodus, and then reviewed in the book of Deuteronomy. Both of these times the Torah offers an added dimension to their observance. In the Exodus rendition the Torah calls the Sabbath holy because G‑d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.6 In the repetition of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is to be observed to recall the fact that G‑d took the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt.7

Both of these reasons are true. The Sabbath attests to belief in G‑d and the pattern He set when creating the world, and also recalls His redeeming the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, where they were forced to work without taking rests. There is a lesson being etched into the psyche of the Jewish people by writing both reasons for Sabbath observance; the second principle is a continuation of the first. Not only did G‑d create the world in six days, but He is also very much involved in our lives.8 He took us out of Egypt and continues to oversee and interact with His Creation. Therefore, weekly Sabbath observance refreshes our faith, instilling within us that G‑d is an active part in our lives.9

Sabbath Observance is Living Judaism

The Sabbath has such centrality in Judaism because its observance in deed is the embodiment of what our faith is based upon. Both the idea of G‑d creating the world, and His involvement in human affairs, are cornerstones of the Jewish faith. One who denies either of these axioms is out of sync with the Jewish concept of G‑d. Sabbath observance brings these theological concepts into action. It is not enough that faith remains a philosophical idea, something that we pay lip service to. The principles of Judaism must be lived.

When a Jew keeps the Sabbath, G‑d remains an engrained part in his life. His faith remains strong, something that he not only believes, but lives and with this secure faith he can better endure life’s most grueling challenges. This spiritual fortitude to combat adversity has helped the Jewish people both on an individual and national scale. It has been said that “more than the Jew keeps the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jew.” The Sabbath has preserved the richness of Jewish identity and spiritual growth. No matter what country the Jews found themselves in, or what kind of social pressures they were under, they always had their ‘island in time’ to reinforce their beliefs in a tangible way. The need for contemporary Jewish people to experience an authentic Sabbath is of paramount importance. Harnessing and further strengthening Jewish spiritual passion in the coming generations will also largely depend upon how centrally Sabbath observance is portrayed.