The Jewish Sabbath

Understanding the Jewish Sabbath

Of the many observances and practices of Judaism, the Jewish Sabbath or Jewish Shabbat (in Hebrew) is the best known and most commonly practiced. The Jewish Shabbat is a day of rest at the end of the week, beginning on sundown Friday night, and ending on Saturday night, when three stars appear in the sky. It is an eagerly awaited chance for the Jewish people to set aside so many of their common concerns and worries and enjoy higher pursuits.

What is the Jewish Sabbath?

The Jewish Sabbath is a day of celebration as well as one of prayer. It is the only rituals laid down by the Ten Commandments and is considered to be one of the most important ritual observed by the Jewish faith. The day itself is a day of rest and enrichment. The word “Shabbat” derives from a root word in Hebrew that means “to cease, to end, to rest.”

In Exodus, where it commands to remember Shabbat, it is more than just a reminder to observe the day. It is to remember the meaning and significance of Shabbat. It is written in Exodus 20:11 that the seventh day shall be set aside as the Sabbath day. By resting on this day, you are emulating the divine offering of creation and rest. If God was able to rest for a day after creating the heavens and the earth, why should we be too important to do the same?

Lighting the Jewish Shabbat Candles

On Shabbat, two candles are lit for the two references to Shabbat in the Bible: Deuteronomy 5:12 - "Observe the Sabbath," and Exodus 20:8 – “Remember the Sabbath."

After the lighting of the candles, the woman covers her eyes with her hands, waves her hands over the candles, as in welcoming Shabbat into the home, and recites the following blessing:

"Barukh atah Adonai E1oheinu, melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat"

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”

A History of Jewish Sabbath Traditions

The Jewish Sabbath is more than a day of rest though. It is a day of remembrance and of freedom. Slaves did not receive days off in Egypt. The leisure of taking a day off to commemorate the decree of the Fourth Commandment is a reminder of the freedom we enjoy to do so.

The Jewish Shabbat is a day of rest, and for that reason there are numerous works that are not permitted under Jewish law. This does not solely mean physical labor and employment though. The word used in Hebrew to describe work is “melachah” which does translate directly as “work.” However, the word more literally means the kind of work that is creative or shows control over surroundings.

The word itself is often only used in the context of Shabbat as well as the building of the sanctuary. From that, there arose 39 categories of work that are forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath, those types that were involved in building the sanctuary. Furthermore, any related act or act using the tools of these 39 acts is forbidden. See below for the 39 categories of activity prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath.

Typical Practices of the Jewish Sabbath

Traditionally, Shabbat begins at sundown, as referenced by the Jewish belief that the day begins at sunset. Actual candle lighting times though can very from location to location. Within 18 minutes of sundown, the Shabbat candles are to be lit and the blessing recited. The woman of the household is to perform this ritual, lighting two candles for the two commandments to remember and observe.

There is a traditional 45 minute service held on Friday night for Shabbat which many families choose to attend, followed by a leisurely dinner. Kiddush is recited over the wine, sanctifying Shabbat and another prayer to bless the food is recited over the Challah, a traditional egg-bread. Once dinner is complete, the birkat ha-mazon is recited and the rest of the evening is given over to casual talk and study of the Torah before sleep.

The day of the Jewish Sabbath itself consists of morning services, followed by another Kiddush prayer and a leisurely midday meal. More study of the torah and leisurely, relaxed activities fill the rest of the day before Shabbat ends with sunset.

As the most important day of any week of the Jewish calendar, the Jewish Sabbath is practiced by millions, observing the freedom of the Jewish people and the miracle of creation.

39 Categories of Activity Prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath

1. Sowing 2. Plowing 3. Reaping 4. Binding sheaves 5. Threshing 6. Winnowing 7. Selecting 8. Grinding 9. Sifting 10. Kneading 11. Baking 12. Shearing wool 13. Washing wool 14. Beating wool 15. Dyeing wool 16. Spinning 17. Weaving 18. Making two loops 19. Weaving two threads 20. Separating two threads 21. Tying 22. Untying 23. Sewing stitches 24. Tearing 25. Trapping 26. Slaughtering 27. Flaying 28. Tanning 29. Scraping hide 30. Marking hides 31. Cutting hide to shape 32. Writing two or more letters 33. Erasing two or more letters 34. Building 35. Demolishing 36. Extinguishing a fire 37. Kindling a fire 38. Putting the finishing touch on an object 39. Transporting an object between a private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.

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