#1 Shabbat – The Nature of Shabbat

Origins in the Torah

The etiology of Shabbat is given in the first two chapters of the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), although the name of the day does not actually appear there: God worked six days at creating the world on the seventh he ceased working (shavat mi-kol melaʾkhto), blessed the day, and declared it holy.

Genesis 2:1-3

(1) And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. (2) And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.

(3) And God blessed the seventh day, and sancted it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.

The special status of this seventh day – and its name – were disclosed to the Israelite people in the episode of the manna. God supplied each day’s need of manna for five days; on the sixth, a double portion was provided to last through the seventh day, on which no manna appeared. Correspondingly, the Israelites were commanded not to go out at all but to remain at home on the seventh day. Thus they learned that the seventh day was “a Shabbat of the Lord,” which they must honor by desisting from their daily food-gathering labor.

Exodus 16:22-26

(22) On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, (23) he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.” (24) So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered; and it did not turn foul, and there were no maggots in it. (25) Then Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath of the LORD; you will not find it today on the plain. (26) Six days you shall gather it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

According to the Book of Exodus, work is to cease on the seventh day in order to give slaves and draft animals rest, a statute that must be observed even during the critical plowing and harvest seasons. The Book of Deuteronomy’s version embodies this humanitarian motive in its divergent rationale of the Shabbat rest – Israel is to keep the Shabbat so that its slaves might rest, and because God so commanded. God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle begins with an admonition to keep the Shabbat, indicating its precedence even over the duty of building the Sanctuary. The Shabbat is then called a sign of both God’s consecration of Israel and of His six-day creation.

Exodus 20:8-12

(8) Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. (9) Six days you shall labor and do all your work, (10) but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. (11) 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.

Exodus 23:12

(12) Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.

Numbers 15:32-36

(32) Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. (33) Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. (34) He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. (35) Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” (36) So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the LORD had commanded Moses.

The Nature of Shabbat
The Shabbat is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not generally observe the stringincies of the day think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer like the Christian Shabbat. But to those who observe Shabbat, it is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.


In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen, as in the popular Shabbat hymn Lecha Dodi. It is said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word “Shabbat” comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.


Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism and is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more so than Yom Kippur.
Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer. Although substantial time is usually spent in synagogue praying, prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. To say that Shabbat is a day of prayer is no more accurate than to say that Shabbat is a day of feasting: we eat every day, but on Shabbat, we eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat.


In modern America, we take the five-day work-week so much for granted that we forget what a radical concept a day of rest was in ancient times. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilization. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or laboring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because we insisted on having a “holiday” every seventh day.

Zachor: To Remember

We are commanded to remember Shabbat; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat. It also means to remember the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and as a commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 20:11, after Fourth Commandment is first instituted, G-d explains, “because for six days, the L-rd made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the L-rd blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it.” By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, we remember and acknowledge that G-d is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. We also emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as G-d did. If G-d’s work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our own work is too important to set aside temporarily?

In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that we must remember on Shabbat: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd, your G-d brought you forth from there with a might hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the L-rd your G-d commanded you to observe the Shabbat day.”

What does the Exodus have to do with resting on the seventh day? It’s all about freedom. As I said before, in ancient times, leisure was confined to certain classes; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Shabbat, we are reminded that we are free. But in a more general sense, Shabbat frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on Shabbat, we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.

We remember these two meanings of Shabbat when we recite kiddush (the prayer over wine sanctifying the Shabbat or a holiday). Friday night kiddush refers to Shabbat as both zikkaron l’ma’aseh bereishit (a memorial of the work in the beginning) and zeicher litzi’at mitzrayim (a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt).

Shamor: To Observe

Of course, no discussion of Shabbat would be complete without a discussion of the work that is forbidden on Shabbat. This is another aspect of Shabbat that is grossly misunderstood by people who do not observe it.

Most Americans see the word “work” and think of it in the English sense of the word: physical labor and effort, or employment. Under this definition, turning on a light would be permitted, because it does not require effort, but a rabbi would not be permitted to lead Shabbat services, because leading services is his employment. Jewish law prohibits the former and permits the latter. Many Americans therefore conclude that Jewish law doesn’t make any sense.

The problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the definition that Americans are using. The Torah does not prohibit “work” in the 20th century English sense of the word. The Torah prohibits “melachah” (Mem-Lamed-Alef-Kaf-Heh), which is usually translated as “work,” but does not mean precisely the same thing as the English word. Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must understand the word “melachah.”

Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment. The word may be related to “melech” (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The quintessential example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d’s work did not require a great physical effort: he spoke, and it was done.

The word melachah is rarely used in scripture outside of the context of Shabbat and holiday restrictions. The only other repeated use of the word is in the discussion of the building of the sanctuary and its vessels in the wilderness. Exodus Ch. 313538. Notably, the Shabbat restrictions are reiterated during this discussion (Ex. 31:13), thus we can infer that the work of creating the sanctuary had to be stopped for Shabbat. From this, the rabbis concluded that the work prohibited on the Shabbat is the same as the work of creating the sanctuary.

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