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“Shabbat Shalom!” my Jewish friends welcome me each Saturday morning when I attend Torah classes at a local synagogue. The greeting falls easily from their lips, a natural extension of their warm smiles, firm handshakes, and collegial back-pats. However, as these same friends have taught me, a truly peaceful Sabbath is not something that comes about naturally, without thought or effort. A truly peaceful Sabbath must be made.
God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He call Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5, JPS translation)
Consistent with the story of Creation, Jews traditionally see days as beginning in the evening, not at midnight. Consequently, the Sabbath day does not suddenly appear, ready-made, when they wake up in the morning. It must be created, called into being out of existing material, much like the earth. In traditional Jewish homes, the woman of the house, often the mother, begins this process by preparing two special candles, one symbolizing the commandment to remember the Sabbath day (Exo. 20:8) and the other the commandment to keep it and sanctify it (Deut. 5:12). Since these candles also represent a family, with a mother and father, she may also set out other candles for her children.
Several minutes before the sun sets, she gathers her family around the dinner table. She lights the candles, extending her hands over them and drawing their warmth towards her gracefully, three times, in a slow circular motion. Then, covering her eyes, she recites a blessing: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.” At this time, with her eyes still covered, she may add a silent prayer for her children, or for some other person or cause close to her heart. Finally, she uncovers her eyes, looks at the candles, smiles, and wishes everyone in the room a peaceful Sabbath. And so the Sabbath begins, initiated by prayer and placed prominently in the center of things.
And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there as evening and there was morning, the sixth day. The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. (Genesis 1:31-2: 3; JPS translation)
Such a start of the Sabbath could appear to distance God from his children, overemphasizing humanity’s contribution at the expense of God’s. However, to many Jews, this is not so. According to Rabbi Wayne Dosick, such a beginning brings God and his children together in a profound and loving way. As he writes, “On Shabbat … we imitate God’s creation by ‘creating light.’ The simple act of lighting a candle becomes a mystical moment of merging with the creation and the Creator.”
Consistent with this idea, religiously observant Jews typically chant the Kiddush, a sanctifying blessing over wine, immediately after the candles have been lit. The blessing begins with a recitation of Genesis 1:31-2:3 and concludes with “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments, and has been pleased with us; in love and favour has given us His holy Sabbath as a heritage, a memorial of the creation—that day being also the first among the holy festivals, in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. Thou hast chosen us and hallowed us above all nations, and in love and favour hast given us thy holy Sabbath as a heritage. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who hallowest the Sabbath.” In other words, although starting the Sabbath for many Jews requires human action, this action is more of a joint effort that helps them appreciate God and what he has done for them.
I you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
From pursuing your affairs on My holy day;
If you call the Sabbath “delight,”
The Lord’s holy day “honored”;
And if you honor it and go not your ways
Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains—
Then you can seek the favor of the Lord.
(Isaiah 58:13-14, JPS translation)
But what kind of Sabbath do Jews jointly create with God? For many, it is a joyous day, a happy day, a day of thanksgiving and blessedness. As Rabbi Wayne Dosick writes, “wine is traditionally a symbol of joy and gladness,” and this idea is not lost on Jews. Many follow the blessing (and drinking!) of wine with a festive meal, surrounded by family and friends. A special braided loaf of bread called challah is served as well as other delicious foods. Songs are also sung, before and after each course. According to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, many of these songs are medieval poems “that rhapsodize the Sabbath rest and the Sabbath glory.” However, Jews are not limited to these “official” songs. As Rabbi Donin adds, they also sing other “songs and melodies which have some religious or spiritual theme.”
In addition, some Jews, particularly Reform Jews, may choose to “receive” the Sabbath by attending a Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening. This service, like other Jewish services, involves prayers and readings and sermons. However, it is often followed by an Oneg Shabbat, literally a “Sabbath Delight,” a kind of after-service party where congregants meet, eat, joke, talk, and otherwise enjoy each other’s company, in keeping with the celebratorial spirit of the Sabbath.
I have also granted skill to all who are skillful that they may make everything I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent; … Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths, for his is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you. (Exodus 31: 6-13; JPS translation)
Nevertheless, the Sabbath for Jews is not all fun and games. Many activities are biblically forbidden on this day—kindling a fire, carrying wood, and, of course, work (Exodus 31: 14-15; 35:3; Numbers 15:32). But what exactly is work? Following textual clues in the book of Exodus, Talmudic rabbis defined work as those activities required to construct the ancient tabernacle—building, hammering, and carrying, but also plowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding, kneading, baking, spinning, weaving, sewing, as well as twenty-five other activities. Later rabbis expanded this definition to include other, more modern activities, such as driving cars, using computers, and talking on phones.
However, rather that viewing these restrictions as limiting, many Jews see them as liberating. As Rabbi Donin writes, “A cursory acquaintance with its restrictions may lead one to assume that [the Sabbath] is an austere day for those who observe it, a day lacking in joy and spirit. Yet experienced from within, it is just the reverse. It serves as a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy and spiritual uplift, accompanied by song and cheer.”
And the Lord said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws? See, for that the Lord hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 16: 28-30; JPS translation)
According to the Talmudic rabbis, “The Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath” (Mekilta to Exodus 31:13), and the main reason the Sabbath was given, it seems, is to reinforce relationships and to increase the joy that these associations provide. Certainly, the Sabbath with its many prayers and scriptural readings helps foster a closer relationship with God. However, it also promotes stronger ties between family and friends.
As Rabbi Dosick writes: on the Sabbath, “I have the ability and the power to set aside one day in seven for what is really important—to replace the tensions and demands of the everyday with physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation: time for spouse, children, parents, and friends; time for prayer, contemplation and reflection; time for leisurely meals, meaningful conversations, and soul-filling renewal; time for affirmation and celebration of the greatness and goodness of life; time for God; and time for myself.” To this end, many Jews find the biblical command to “abide ye every man in his place” on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29) to be particularly helpful, encouraging through physical proximity increased focus on family discussions and family activities.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord …
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
(Isaiah 11: 1-2, 6, 9-10; KJV translation)
Rabbi Donin calls the Sabbath is an “island in time” and emphasizes how it serves as a temporal retreat from the workaday “mainland of the rest of the week.” However, for many Jews the Sabbath does not solely concern the present. For them, it is also a kind of “causative prophecy,” an invitation to cultivate a better future as well.
According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in Genesis Jews were given a vision of the world in its ideal Edenic state and tasked with returning the world to that state. Such a mission is, of course, full of obstacles and setbacks. Rabbi Greenberg therefore asks, “From where can these people draw the strength to renew their dream again and again?” His answer? The Sabbath. As he writes, “Give people just a foretaste of the fulfillment, and they will never give it up. The Sabbath is that taste.”
Rabbi Greenberg explains: the Sabbath provides a regular, real-life experience with the kind of lifestyle that will exist during the Messianic Era, what Christians call “the Millennium.” On that day, at least for twenty-four hours, peace prevails and righteous reigns; the mountain of the Lord’s house has been reestablished in Jerusalem; nation no longer lifts up sword against nation; and the earth brings forth its bounty abundantly, naturally, spontaneously, just as it did in the Garden of Eden, without requiring humanity to eat of its bread in sorrow or by the sweat of its face (Isaiah 2: 2, 4; Genesis 3: 19).
However, the Sabbath was not given to tease Jews by creating in them an appetite for something they cannot have; it is meant instead to nourish them, to strengthen them, and to cause them to so hunger and thirst after righteousness that they recommit themselves to do everything in their power to rid the world—and themselves—of injustice, war, contention, greed, inequality, prejudice, and pride forever. In this way, the Sabbath day, as well as the sabbatical year, not only helps Jews to appreciate the joy of the Messianic Era but serves to motivate them to complete their quest to prepare the world for that blessed time.
And the inhabitants of Zion shall also observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy. (D&C 68:29)
At the conclusion of each Sabbath, observant Jews hold a special havdalah or “separation” ceremony. After the sun has gone down and three stars have been spotted in the sky, they sip kosher wine, smell fragrant spices, light a braided candle, hear special blessings, and contemplate those blessings—all in order to consecrate their senses to God, to rededicate themselves to keeping God’s commandments, and to fortify themselves until the next Sabbath.
Similarly, what my Jewish friends have taught me fortifies my approach the Sabbath. No, I do not light Sabbath candles or bless them with my face covered, but on Sunday morning, when I pray, I ponder the significance of this day and ask what I can do to make it holy. I also do not eat challah or drink wine. However, when I partake of the sacrament, in addition to contemplating of Jesus’ sacrifice, I think of the spiritual nourishment and joy he and Heavenly Father have brought me and consider how I might spread that joy to others.
Often, I prepare a special treat for me and my wife, write encouraging emails to friends, call family members and wish them well. So no, I don’t avoid cooking, using my computer, or talking on the phone on Sunday. I also don’t walk to church or remain in my neighborhood for twenty-four hours. However, I do refrain from work-related activities, abstain from spending money, and rest from playing my beloved tennis; and as I do, I think about the freedom these rules give me and find enjoyment and purpose in doing what I can do. In other words, what I have learned from my Jewish friends has not revolutionized my approach to the Sabbath. However, it has enhanced it, greatly, increasing both my understanding of this day as well as my efforts to make it a peaceful day of appreciation, celebration, liberation, relation and motivation, all in anticipation of a greater peace yet to come. Shabbat Shalom!
 All blessings cited in this article come from To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin.