The Importance of Shabbat

Part Two: What Shabbat is Not
By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © December 29, 2010 (last updated September 16, 2018)


Some people who are not Shamor Shabbat (i.e. who do not observe the biblical Sabbath according to Halakha) have a negative opinion of it. They think of Shabbat as a day of stifling legalism and rigid rules. They disparage their Orthodox neighbor's refusal to drive on Shabbat or to handle money, to turn on or off electrical appliances and so on. But they fail to understand what motivates these observances. Let's take a look at this.

Shabbat brings freedom! Shabbat brings joy! Even the word Shabbat testifies of this.

The word "Shabbat" comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. Does that sound difficult? Shabbat exists to give us the time to rest, to pursue things other than our material needs and desires. It is the day of sharing between the creation and the Creator. It is a day of joy, delight, and feasting. It is a sacred time given to the Jewish people for our refreshment. Of this Rebbe Nachman taught:

Be very careful to feel only joy on Shabbat. There is nothing to compare with the greatness and holiness of Shabbat. The key to honoring the Shabbat is joy. Don't show even a hint of depression or anxiety on Shabbat.
Treat yourself to all kinds of delights in the food you eat, what you drink, your clothes... whatever you can afford. The food of Shabbat is completely holy. It is purely spiritual and filled with Godliness. It rises to a totally different place from that of the food of the six working days.
Make an effort to feel the joy of Shabbat and you will find true happiness -- Likutey Moharan II, 17.
On Shabbat we enjoy the company of family and friends, we sing and dance and play games between four wonderful feasts! And we rest from our weekly toils and stresses! On Shabbat we study Torah, go to the synagogue, we read the weekly Parsha (Torah portion) and we commune with HaShem. On Shabbat we relax and turn our attention to what really matters in life. On Shabbat there is neither rich nor poor, master nor servant. We are all one on Shabbat.

So what's wrong with Shabbat?

Nothing! Shabbat is pure goodness! As Rebbe Nachman teaches us:

Keeping Shabbat is the foundation of true faith. All our acts of charity and other good deeds radiate to perfection only through Shabbat, which is the very essence of faith [emuna]. Charity can bring many blessings and good influences into the world but they are only actually revealed through Shabbat. As the essence of faith, Shabbat is the fountain of blessings, bringing everything in the world to its ultimate perfection. Without Shabbat and the faith it brings, everything is lacking, including our Godly understanding and knowledge of the Torah. Genuine wisdom and Torah understanding can thrive only through the influence of Shabbat and faith -- Likutey Moharan I, 31
Awesome!

Of course there are rules for the proper observance of Shabbat. These draw us into the spirit and holiness of the day. Driving a car can be a pleasure, but there are rules. Marriage is such a joy, but if its rules are not observed that joy can quickly become sorrow. So too with HaShabbat. The rules should be viewed with gratitude as we observe them for our great and abiding happiness. Again Rebbe Nachman says:
To experience the essential holiness of the Shabbat, which is the foundation of true faith, it is necessary to observe the purity of the Holy Covenant. Shabbat is deeply bound up with the Covenant, and this is why it is customary to spend Shabbat with tzadikim [i.e. righteous people], whose holiness derives from their observance of the Covenant in purity in every way. Spending Shabbat with a tzaddik enables us to experience the true holiness of Shabbat and deepen our faith -- Likutey Moharan I, 31

No Melachah on Shabbat

Shabbat is a time to remember our joys and celebrate to afresh what is important: HaShem, family and friends. On Shabbat we lay the work of our hands and the struggles for survival aside. "Work" is prohibited on Shabbat because on Shabbat we celebrate that HaShem has already provided for all of our needs.

This does not mean we can't do anything however! Shabbat is often filled with all sorts of joyous activities. The Torah does not prohibit "work" in the sense we usually understand the word in English. Torah prohibits melachah: certain types of creative work. "Work" is an accurate (and standard) translation of the word melachah, but its not quite right in this context.

Melachah refers specifically to actions that bring new things into being, that create new items and realities or that fundamentally alters the material world, for better or for worse. This makes complete sense in light of Genesis 2:1-3 because on Shabbat HaShem ceased from creating and so do we, acknowledging that in what He has made resides everything we need.

The word melachah has two main applications in the Bible: work forbidden on Shabbat (example: Exodus 31:13,14) and work done during the construction of the sacred Temple (Exodus chapters 31, 35-38). On Shabbat we symbolically dwell in the Olam Haba (i.e. the World to Come) and so have no needs: "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine, who grazes among the roses" (Shir Hashirim - Song of Songs 6:3). As the learned Rabbis of past centuries considered this connection they determined that the "work" (melachah) forbidden on Shabbat was the same type of creative work involved in building the Beit HaMikdash (the "House of the Holy": the Jerusalem Temple). Everything in the Bible is related to and reflected in the sacred House of HaShem! From this truth, the Rabbis calculated the following 39 types of work forbidden on Shabbat:

  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 two stitches
  24. Tearing
  25. Trapping
  26. Slaughtering
  27. Flaying
  28. Salting meat
  29. Curing hide
  30. Scraping hide
  31. Cutting hide up
  32. Writing two letters
  33. Erasing two letters
  34. Building
  35. Tearing a building down
  36. Extinguishing a fire
  37. Kindling a fire
  38. Hitting with a hammer
  39. Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.

Jews are commanded to rest on Shabbat and to devote ourselves to higher pursuits, avoiding these types of mundane activities. From these 39 many more rules have been extrapolated over the years in order to preserve this initial intention.

Historically some Jews have been more strict and exacting on these rules than others. Each of us determines the degree of our observances. A standard rule is to observe the traditions (or minhag) of ones rabbi and local community. One thing is certain, one can not possibly be too Shamor Shabbat .

In concert with the rabbinic rulings and mandates, each Jew determines how to properly observe Shabbat. As with all areas, not everyone is at the same place. As Rebbe Nachman noted, "Torah was not given to the angels but to fallible humans." Do what works for you, always adding a bit more.

Shabbat observance is the sign of the Covenant according to Torah and religious Jews guard it carefully:

Exodus 31:12 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
13. "And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: 'Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy.
14. Therefore, keep the Sabbath, for it is a sacred thing for you. Those who desecrate it shall be put to death, for whoever performs work on it, that soul will be cut off from the midst of its people.
15. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever performs work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.'
16. Thus shall the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.
17. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."
18. When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with the finger of God.

Again Rebbe Nachman explains:

On Shabbat everyone experiences a certain enhancement of their Godly understanding and awareness, and this increases their ability to show love to others.
For a person's capacity to give love is related to his level of Godly knowledge and awareness. And one who offers love to others receives a flow of heavenly love -- Rebbe Nachman, Likutey Moharan I, 119

Because Shabbat is so sacred we need to prepare for its arrival. In the next section we will look at some of these Preparations for Shabbat as we continue this study.

Also see my Holiday Directory for more.

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