The Weekly Sabbath

Shabbat Quick Facts

Hebrew Meaning of Name: “Cessation”

English Name: Sabbath

Jewish Calendar Date: Weekly, Friday sundown–Saturday sundown

Duration: One day

Established: Genesis 2, Exodus 20

Purpose of Shabbat

Shabbat (Sabbath in English) is a weekly occasion of rest, from sundown on Friday evening to sundown on Saturday evening. Despite the many rabbinical regulations surrounding Shabbat, its primary purpose has always been: to grant us rest, to make us whole, and to soothe the frayed nerves and tired joints that come from a week’s work. God makes provision for our weakness through Shabbat, and is one of the most sacred times in Scripture, for God himself sanctified the seventh day immediately following Creation, as recounted in Genesis.

Origin of Shabbat

The word “Sabbath” (“Shabbat” in Hebrew) does not appear in the Torah until the book of Exodus, but in Genesis we find a related Hebrew word, shavat, which means “cease” or “rest”:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested (shavat) on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested (shavat) from all his work that he had done in creation”.

Genesis 2:1-3

God’s “resting” has been described as “enjoyment of the finished creation.” In the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue), He commands the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

The “rest” described in Exodus and throughout Scripture is above all a state of peace and fellowship with God. Mere cessation of work does not a Sabbath mindset make. God’s intention in giving the Sabbath was for Israel to be a microcosm of redeemed humanity, a community beginning to live out the “rest” of a people in intimate fellowship with Him, despite their continued struggle with sin.

To help Israel understand this ongoing dynamic of redemption and sanctification, God laid down two institutions: the Tabernacle and the Sabbath. explicitly ties the two together: “You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.” (Biblical scholars have noticed that both the Tabernacle and Shabbat are pictures of life in the Garden of Eden, the original place of fellowship with God. For details, see the book Christ in the Sabbath.)

By setting them alongside each other, God shows these to be equally sacred institutions. During the weekly Shabbat Israel was to imitate God when He “rested” (shavat), or ceased from creating. On Shabbat, Israel was not to engage in any act of creation, whether that lay in making something new or adapting existing things for use. Israel was to cease from creative acts just as God did—they were to experience life on the seventh day by enjoying both the Creator and the Creation.


How Shabbat Is Observed and Order of Service in Synagogue

Siddurim (prayer books), which vary among the branches of Judaism, lay out the order of service for Shabbat. What follows is a general and by no means exhaustive description of Shabbat in its constituent parts.

The Friday evening service begins with the Bar’chu, the call to worship. It is a blessing of “the Lord who is to be blessed.” Then follows the Shema: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Barch shem k’vod malchuto, l’olam va’ed.” Translated, that reads: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Blessed be His glorious name, whose kingdom is forever and ever.” The Shema is the oldest statement of our unequivocal belief in the one true God, and one of the most sacred prayers in all Judaism. The V’ahavta follows: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).1

The centerpiece of the service is the Amidah, a prayer consisting of nineteen blessings said both aloud and silently. Among its many constituent blessings, the Amidah includes the Kedushah (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with His Glory…”). The Amidah is a time of communal and personal prayer, spoken and silent. Sometimes there are additions made to the Amidah on holidays and during holiday periods, e.g., we thank God for His miracles during Hanukkah and ask to be inscribed in the book of Life during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jews stand facing east towards Jerusalem during the Amidah, and many daven (bow repeatedly) as they pray.

Additional prayers and blessings come both before and after the reading of the parsha, the portion of the Torah assigned for any given week as determined by a set liturgical calendar. The Torah is divided into 54 parashot (plural), so that we cycle through the entirety of the Torah over the course of a year. Paired with each parsha is a haftarah reading drawn from the Nevi’im (prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible) meant in some manner to relate to the parsha. The Friday evening Shabbat service concludes with songs and prayers.

The Shabbat dinner includes observances of its own. In religious households, Shabbat is received as one might receive royalty. Traditionally women bathe themselves and clean the house, decking it with flowers and perfuming their hair. Favorite family dishes, like chicken soup, fill the house with a pleasant aroma, while preparations are made for the Shabbat meal. A spotless household and well-laid table announce the arrival of a long-awaited guest—the Sabbath itself!

Shabbat Candles

Before sundown on Friday evening, the Shabbat candles are lit and blessed, an honor given to one of the women. Covered in a headscarf, she shades her eyes, then waves her hands over the candles before reciting the blessing. Then follow the blessings over the wine (the Kiddush) and the two challah loaves (the HaMotzi), which are usually wrapped in decorative coverings. Afterwards is the Shabbat dinner, a convivial time of leisurely rest and fellowship. For the next 24 hours through Saturday evening at sundown there is a refrain from work—traditionally enumerated in terms of thirty-nine categories. It is customary to greet others with “Shabbat Shalom” or “Good Shabbos.”

Saturday morning has a service of its own, usually lasting three hours in Orthodox synagogues and less in Conservative and Reform synagogues. Much of the Saturday morning liturgy repeats Friday evening’s. Additional prayers, such as for the government and the commemoration of martyrs, also take place. Various psalms and Talmudic excerpts are sprinkled throughout the service, some of which are omitted among more liberal Jews.

Following the Saturday morning service comes the mussaf, an additional service that consists of repetition of other Shabbat liturgy, along with a generous sampling of psalms and other readings. Some Jews also attend an abbreviated afternoon service (minchah) as well as an evening service (ma’ariv).

Shabbat ends with the Saturday havdalah, a concluding service that takes place once the first three stars have appeared in the night sky. Havdalah, literally meaning “separation” or “division,” demarcates the sacred period of Shabbat from the profane rest of the week.

During havdalah, we recite the Kiddush as well as saying a blessing over the besamim—a fragrant set of spices stored in a silver decorative box; many such spice boxes are modest but fine pieces of Jewish handiwork. According to Maimonides, the fragrance we sniff makes up for the vanishing sweetness of our just-concluded rest2. Finally, we say the havdalah blessing itself, drink the wine and extinguish the candles with the dregs of the wine. Afterwards, we wish one another “Shavua tov!”, meaning, “A good week to you!”

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Shabbat

Shabbat headscarves, candlesticks and besamim boxes may seem like little things, but in many households these are precious heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. In fact, so important is the lighting of the Shabbat candles that wayfaring Jews keep portable candlesticks on them on their sojourns, so that they may honor God through the blessing over the candles. Whether at home or on the road, the lighting of the Sabbath lights is a visual reminder to keep Shabbat and honor God.

In order to help religious Jews with the observance of Shabbat as mandated by tradition, a whole class of inventions has cropped up—cookers that can prepare food so no one needs to turn electronics on and off (considered an example of work, or in Hebrew, melakha), automatic lights that relieve us of the “work” of switching them on and off during Shabbat. There is no end to various prohibitions and dispensations, and more liberal Jews have dispensed with many or even all of them. The Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish law compiled in the second century A.D., remarks that: “The laws concerning the Sabbath, festal-offerings, acts of trespass are as mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws” (Hagigah 1.8). Whether a particular Jewish person finds these a help or a hindrance to their faith will depend on whom you happen to ask!

It is considered a mitzvah to bless one’s children on Shabbat. Other mitzvot traditionally include sleeping, resting, and studying Torah. and engaging in marital relations. It is common also during Shabbat to sing songs like Shalom Aleichem and Shabbat Shalom—folk songs that lend Shabbat the celebratory air that is an integral part of the day.

Shabbat in the New Testament

Though Jesus himself attended Shabbat services (see for example, Luke 4:16), the meaning and observance of the day sometimes became a bone of contention between Jesus and his fellow Jews.

Jesus spoke of Shabbat as a gift that God gave to benefit rather than oppress his people. We read in the Gospel of Mark:

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:23-28a

Jesus spoke up when he believed that Sabbath regulations, however well intentioned, failed to achieve the purpose of Shabbat which was a state of spiritual rest. It’s interesting that other rabbis also had sayings similar to Jesus, on how Sabbath was made for humanity and not vice-versa. Jesus would undoubtedly have agreed with them on this point.

In a parallel passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers himself as a source of eternal Sabbath rest:

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Shabbat lasts one day. And a day can only do so much to relieve our lives of the cares that inevitably weigh us down and the obligations that so often cloud our perception of life. When we sag beneath the weight of the world, and it feels as though it is too much, Jesus, the Messiah, tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Through him, God gives us access to another source of rest and comfort altogether—Jesus himself and God’s Spirit, who guide our steps as we seek to enter his rest.

“There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest…”

Hebrews 4:9-11

While Christians hold a variety of opinions concerning the place of the Sabbath among Jesus’ followers, but all can agree that consciously setting apart time to experience rest refreshes us, gives us a taste of what is to come (the “World to Come,” as traditionally expressed), and helps us focus on the work we are called to do here on earth.

Jews for Jesus’ Offer for Shabbat

Weekly Sabbath dinners: You are invited to weekly Sabbath dinners held at various cities in which Jews for Jesus has branches. Please contact us on LiveChat or leave us a message in the tab on the bottom right-hand side of this page to find out more.

Chat with Us

Do you celebrate Shabbat? What activities do you refrain from and which do you continue doing during Shabbat? What importance (if any) does the observance of Shabbat have in your life? Please tell us on LiveChat or leave us a message. Shabbat Shalom (Good Shabbat) and Shavua Tov (a good week ahead) to you!

End Notes

1. On the basis of the V’ahavta many Jewish men wear tefillin (boxes containing miniature scrolls inscribed with the V’ahavta) in weekday morning services in synagogue, since we are told: “You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). They are not, however, worn on Shabbat. Men are also supposed to wear kippot or yarmulkes in synagogue as a sign of reverence for the Lord. Some wear a tallit (prayer shawl) as well. Depending on the branch and congregation, women also wear head coverings, though this practice is not universal; in all synagogues, men and women alike dress in modest clothing so as not to draw attention to themselves or show disrespect to the Lord.

2. We omit the ritual of smelling the besamim whenever a holiday follows Shabbat, since we have fresh cause for rejoicing.