Originally published in Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), vol. 13, pp. 189-92.
SHABBAT. The Hebrew word shabbat is from a root meaning “to desist” or “to rest,” that is, from work and labor. The Sabbath is the day of rest each week after six days of work. The resemblances to the ancient Babylonian shapattu, the day of the full moon, as well as the biblical juxtaposition of the Sabbath with the new moon festival (Rosh Hodesh) in the Bible, have often been noted, and it may well be that originally there was some connection between the Babylonian and the Hebraic institutions. In the biblical narrative (Gn. 1:12:4), God rests on the seventh day from his creative activity and thereby sanctifies and blesses this day.
The command to keep the Sabbath holy is found in both versions of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:8-11, Dt. 5:1215), but the reasons given for Sabbath observance differ. In Exodus the creation motif is stressed: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.” This does not necessarily mean, as Philo of Alexandria understood it, that man must imitate God by resting as he did on the seventh day. It may mean that by resting on the day on which creation was complete, man acknowledges God as creator. In Deuteronomy the social motivation is prominent. Man must rest on the Sabbath and allow his slaves to rest with him so that the slaves are released from the burden of unceasing toil. A slave, subordinate to his master, cannot rest when he wishes. Therefore, by resting on the Sabbath, the Israelite demonstrates that he is free to rest because he has been redeemed from bondage.
The nature of the “work” (mela’khah) that is forbidden on the Sabbath has received many different interpretations in the course of Jewish history. The only types of forbidden work specified in the Pentateuch are baking and cooking (Ex. 16:23), kindling fire (Ex. 35:3), and gathering wood (Nm. 15:32-36). From the sudden interposition of an injunction to keep the Sabbath into the narrative in which the Israelites are instructed by Moses to build the Tabernacle (Ex. 35:1-3), the Talmudic rabbis (B.T., Shab. 49b, B.Q. 2a) deduced that all the types of work required for the building of the Tabernacle are those forbidden on the Sabbath. This led to a listing (Shab. 7.1) of thirty-nine main categories of work, from which many others were derived by analogy.
In addition, various restrictions were introduced by the rabbis, as on the handling of money or of objects normally used for work, and all business activities. According to the rabbis it is forbidden to carry even the smallest object from a private into a public domain. But in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv it is permitted to carry objects within the confines of the city by means of the eruv (“mingling” of domains), an elaborate arrangement of posts and wires encircling the city that, by a legal fiction, converts the whole area into a private domain within which it is permitted to carry.
Reform Judaism largely ignores the rabbinic rules governing acts forbidden on the Sabbath, preferring to understand “work” as gainful occupation alone, and the spiritual atmosphere of the Sabbath as generated chiefly by means of rituals in the home and services in the synagogue. Orthodox Judaism follows the traditional regulations in their entirety. Where new inventions create problems, these are solved by a process of analogy. For instance, Orthodox rabbis have considered whether switching on electric lights falls under the heading of “kindling fire” since there is no combustion of the filament. The consensus today among Orthodox rabbis forbids the use of all electrical appliances on the Sabbath. A rationale for the Orthodox understanding is that work does not mean physical effort as such, but the creative manipulation of the physical world. Moving heavy objects, for example, does involve effort but is not creative, as is writing a letter or lighting a cigarette (since the ability to make fire was man’s first great step toward civilization). By refraining on the Sabbath from creative manipulation of the world, people demonstrate that they enjoy their talents as gifts from God, the creator. They are theirs not by right but by permission. People have a stewardship for which they will be called to account by God. Conservative Judaism in the United States follows the traditional view of the Sabbath laws, but Conservative rabbis generally permit switching on electric lights, using a microphone and telephone, and riding in an automobile to the synagogue.
The positive aspects of the Sabbath as a day of spiritual and physical refreshment, as a day of delight (based on Isaiah 58:13), are constantly invoked in Jewish literature. In the poetic rabbinic statement (B.T., Shab. 119b), man has an additional soul on the Sabbath, and when he comes home to the Sabbath meal he is accompanied by angels. The thirteenth-century Spanish exegete Nahmanides, in his commentary on the Exodus version of the Decalogue, sees the prohibition of work on the Sabbath as an instance of the fear of God, whereas the positive injunction to celebrate the Sabbath as a sacred day is an instance of the love of God.
The ideas of honoring the Sabbath and taking delight in it are expressed in the wearing of special clothes, having a well-lit home, forgetting worldly worries and anxieties (for this reason petitionary prayers are not recited on the Sabbath), the study of the Torah, the three meals (instead of the two eaten on weekdays in ancient times) of good food and wine, and the union of husband and wife. This last emphasis would seem to be in reaction against sectarian opinions that sexual congress on the Sabbath is sinful as a creative act. The Karaites have interpreted the prohibition of kindling fire to mean that there must be no fire or light in the home. In all probability the rabbinic emphasis in the Middle Ages on the Sabbath lights is in conscious reaction to this view and an attempt to make the Sabbath a day of joy and tranquillity rather than a day of gloom. At the festive Sabbath meals joyous hymns (zemirot) are sung by the family.
Just before the advent of the Sabbath on Friday evening, the mistress of the house prays for her family as she kindles two candles in honor of the day: one candle represents the prohibition of work, the other the positive injunction of Sabbath joy and tranquillity. The festive meal begins with the Qiddush (sanctification), a praise of God in which he is thanked, over a cup of wine, for granting Israel the precious boon that is the Sabbath. The grace before meals is recited over two loaves of bread, covered with a white cloth, representing the manna of which a double portion fell to the Israelites before the Sabbath (Ex. 16:22-27).
At the beginning of the synagogue service on Friday night, the Sabbath is welcomed with song. The mystics of Safad in the sixteenth century used to go out into the fields before the Sabbath to welcome the Bride Sabbath. Based on this is the now-universal custom of singing the hymn Lekhah dodi (Come My Beloved), composed by Shelomoh Alkabets, a member of the Safad circle. At the termination of the Sabbath the havdalah (“distinction”) benediction is recited over a cup of wine. In this ceremony God is praised for making a distinction between the holy and the profane, light and darkness, the people of Israel and other peoples, and between the Sabbath and the six working days. He is also thanked for the gift of light over a special candle kindled after the Sabbath. Sweet spices are smelled to restore the soul, which is sad at the departure of the Sabbath.
The central feature of the synagogue service on the Sabbath is the reading of the Torah from a handwritten scroll—the Sefer Torah (Book of the Law). The Torah is divided into portions, one section (sidrah) of which is read each Sabbath. The whole Torah is completed in this way each year, and then the cycle begins anew. In ancient times the seven persons called up (to the platform where the reading is done) read from the scroll itself, but nowadays they only recite the benedictions praising God for giving the Torah to his people, and the actual reading is carried out by the rabbi or cantor, who uses a traditional chant. In Reform congregations only a part of the weekly sidrah is read, and there is no chanting. Before the reading begins, the Sefer Torah is taken out of the ark that houses it and is borne ceremonially around the synagogue, adorned with a richly embroidered cloth, silver bells, and a silver pointer. After the reading, the Sefer Torah is held aloft with its columns open for all to see while the congregation sings in Hebrew: “This is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel by the mouth of God at the hand of Moses.” In addition to the Torah reading, a member of the congregation reads from one of the books of the Prophets. This portion is known as the haftarah (“conclusion”). The choice of the Prophetic readings was made to coincide in theme with that of the weekly Torah reading.
There are a number of special Sabbaths marked by additions to the standard liturgy and by relevant Prophetic and extra Torah readings. The earliest of these are the four Sabbaths of the weeks before Passover. These are Shabbat Sheqalim (Sabbath of Shekels), a reminder of the practice in Temple times of beginning the annual collection of money for the sacrifices at this period (based on Exodus 30:11-16 and 2 Kings 11:17-12:17); Shabbat Zakhor (Sabbath of Remembering), a reminder of Amalek (based on Deuteronomy 25:17-19 and 1 Samuel 15:1-34); Shabbat Parah (Sabbath of the Red Heifer), a reminder of the purification rites in Temple times in preparation for Passover (based on Numbers 19:1-22 and Exodus 36:16-38); and Shabbat ha-Hodesh (Sabbath of the New Moon), the declaration that the “first month,” Nisan, is the beginning of the new annual cycle for the festivals (based on Exodus 12:1-20 and Ezekiel 45:16-46:18). The haftarah for the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover is from the third chapter of Malachi, concluding with a reference to the great (gadol) day of the Lord, after which this Sabbath is called Shabbat ha-Gadol (the Great Sabbath).
The Sabbath on which the weekly sidrah includes the Song of Moses (Ex. 16:1-21) has for the haftarah the Song of Deborah (Jgs. 4-5) and is known as Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of Song). On the three Sabbaths preceding the fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, the haftarot consist of Prophetic readings dealing with calamity, and the seven Sabbaths following the fast have portions from the second part of the Book of Isaiah, dealing with the theme of consolation. Since the haftarah of the Sabbath preceding the fast begins with the word hazon (“vision,” Is. 1), this Sabbath is called Shabbat Hazon; the haftarah of the Sabbath immediately after the fast begins with the word nahamu (“comfort ye”), and this Sabbath is called Shabbat Nahamu. The Sabbath between Ro’sh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur falls during the penitential season. Its haftarah is from Hosea 14, beginning with the words “shuvah Yisra’el,” hence this Sabbath is called Shabbat Shuvah.
For a discussion of the critical view on the origins of the Sabbath, see U. Cassuto’s A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, vol. 1, From Adam to Noah, translated by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1961), pp. 65-69. The voluminous tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, dealing with every aspect of Sabbath observance in rabbinic times, is now available in English translation by H. Freedman, in the Soncino translation of the Babylonian Talmud, edited by I. Epstein (London, 1938). Solomon Goldman’s little book A Guide to the Sabbath (London, 1961) is written from the moderately Orthodox point of view. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York, 1951) is a fine impressionistic study of the Sabbath as, in the author’s words, “a Temple in time.” A useful anthology of teachings on the Sabbath is Abraham E. Millgram’s Sabbath: The Day of Delight (Philadelphia, 1944). The best edition of the Sabbath table hymns, with an introduction and notes in English, is Zemiroth Sabbath Songs, edited by Nosson Scherman (New York, 1979).