History and Development of Shabbat

Despite the importance of Shabbat in Jewish life, the Torah provides few details as to its observance. Apart from the oft-repeated injunction to “do no work” on Shabbat (see Exodus 20:10, 35:2, and Deuteronomy 5:14, among others), the only other specifics mentioned are a few prohibitions such as those against kindling a fire, gathering wood, and plowing.

After 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the ancient rabbis worked intensively to adapt biblical traditions and teachings to the reality: of Jewish religious life in the absence of a sacred center. In the process, they created the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, which serves as the basis of modern Jewish life. One of the major thrusts of the rabbinic enterprise was establishing rules for observance of the Shabbat, putting their own stamp on existing popular tradition. 

history of shabbatBased on a seemingly random interpolation of the law to cease working on Shabbat in the midst of a description of how the Israelites were to build the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary (Exodus 31:13), the rabbis of antiquity deduced that all labors necessary for constructing such a sanctuary and its appurtenances should serve as the blueprint for Shabbat prohibitions. Identifying 39 basic categories of labor, the rabbis determined that these activities, and any that were similar or related to them formed the basis of future Shabbat restrictions. Their choices thus focused Shabbat prohibitions on activities involving creating and destroying, and they added to this list other activities not specifically banned, in their view, but nevertheless inappropriate to the Sabbath.

The rabbis also translated into concrete liturgical acts the Torah’s positive admonitions to “remember” and “keep” the Sabbath “[in order] to sanctify it.” Thus the rabbis created the ritual of kiddush or “sanctification” (a special blessing usually said over wine) and an elaborate Shabbat liturgy as the required active content of Shabbat observance to go along with the prohibition of labor.

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