According to a midrash, Shabbat is a “precious jewel” in God’s possession that he gives to the Jewish people. In his book “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains that “the meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather space … on Shabbat we try to become attuned to the holiness of time.”
For centuries, the idea of Shabbat, the cessation from work for a complete day, was unique to the Jewish people. It is the most frequent of Jewish holidays but also the least understood.
The purpose of Shabbat, according to Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation, is to “withdraw from normal reality and exist in God’s reality. We unplug from those things that are materialistic and mechanical. It gives us a chance to exist in prayer, study, meals and being with our families and friends.”
Shabbat begins at sundown Friday evening and continues until three stars are visible in the sky Saturday night. It is a time when Jewish men and women attend prayer services, eat elaborate meals, study and follow rituals passed down for centuries.
Exodus 20:8-11 commands, “Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, and the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any manner of work…for the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it Holy.”
Halakhah, or Jewish law, identifies 39 types of activities prohibited on Shabbat. Some of these include lighting fires, transacting business, loading animals or carrying objects. Of course, the observation of these prohibitions vary according to the different movements within Judaism.
As much of Shabbat is observed at home and many of the activities needed to be done, such as cooking, are not allowed on the holiday, preparation is key. Batya Rosenblum, co-director of Chabad of the South Hills, begins by planning the Shabbat dinner menu on Tuesday or Wednesday. “We have 6 to 10 guests on average. For us, it’s a way to connect with members of the community.”
She often uses a crock pot for her meal. “As long as it’s in the crock pot and plugged in by Shabbos and stays plugged in, then we have hot meals to honor the Shabbos in accordance with Jewish law.”
The traditional Shabbat meal includes two loaves of challah bread. Rosenblum cooks those during the week. Baking the bread for Shabbos, she explained, “is a mitzvah. When baking the bread, a piece is to be taken off and burnt, that is symbolic of the piece taken off during the Temple times and given to the kohen.”
Many families dress in formal clothing to celebrate Shabbat. “Down to the little kids, they know that there are Shabbos clothes and Shabbos shoes,” said Rosenblum. “We get dressed very nicely. That’s because we are honoring Shabbat like a queen. If you had royalty coming to your home, everything would be beautiful.”
Once the preparation for Shabbat is complete, there are blessings and traditions associated with the holiday.
Candles are lit as Shabbat begins. Traditionally, two candles are kindled approximately 20 minutes prior to sundown although some families add a candle for each member of their household. Kiddush or the blessing over wine usually follows. It is also customary for parents to bless their children during Shabbat.
Once the blessings have been completed, family and guests enjoy the Sabbath meal, which is often chicken or a stew called cholent. These dishes can stay warm during the evening hours and serve as meals throughout the next day. Three meals should be consumed during Shabbat, according to Perlman — Friday evening, Saturday lunch and then a third, lighter meal. It’s up to the family creating the meal what type of experience they want to have at home. Jewish culture features many different types of food.”
Observing Shabbat includes attending a weekly prayer service. Most liberal institutions feature Friday-night and/or Saturday-morning services, while traditional synagogues may only have a Saturday-morning service, believing Friday night should be left for home celebrations.
While some parts of Shabbat — candle lighting, kiddush, the prohibitions against work — are set features, the holiday can be customized by families or traditions. Some options include various songs and prayers, Torah study or socializing.
Rosenblum and her family use Shabbat for special family time. “We find quality time with our kids, we have learning, play fun games and connect to our kids.” She also said that she and her husband believe it to be a time to “connect to your spouse without outside distractions.”
In recent years, it has become popular in some parts of the community to offer alternative Shabbat activities. These might include Torah yoga or hikes on Saturday afternoon.
Just as Shabbat begins with ritual, so too does it end. Havdalah, which means separation, is a short service that includes a blessing over wine, smelling fragrant spices and lighting a special candle made with two or more wicks.
The Rosenblum family ends Shabbat with a very short service marking the tradition: “We are sad to see Shabbat leave and we ask that the energy of Shabbat stay throughout the week.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@