The Rabbis’ Shabbat II: Enjoyment and Spiritual Fulfillment

The Rabbis used requirements and prohibitions to shape a Shabbat experience in which creative activity is set aside to make time for matters of the spirit. Second of two parts.


Second in a two-part series. Reprinted from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (transl. Michael Swirsky), published by Jason Aronson Inc.

READ PART I: Prohibitions

The heart of Shabbat observance is, as I have said, refraining rather than doing: cessation. But there is also the positive dimension of the “culture” of Shabbat, the dimension that makes it, in the words of the liturgy, “a day of joy and rest, quiet and security,” a day of holiness, a day when one acquires an “extra soul.”

Thus, before Shabbat begins, candles are lit, preferably on or near the dinner table. This practice, which was originally intended to make the Sabbath evening meal more enjoyable, has always had a festive quality to it: the brightness of the light gives added honor to the day. Every Jew is obliged to light candles, but over the centuries the tradition arose that it should be done, wherever possible, by the woman of the house. (There is also a beautiful custom according to which each female member of the family, even little girls, lights her own Shabbat candles). The connection between the night of Shabbat and the woman’s role is a deep and ancient one, of which the candlelighting is but one part.

shabbat spiritUnlike weekday meals, those eaten on Shabbat are not for physical sustenance alone but serve to fulfill the mitzvah of Sabbath joy. It is also a mitzvah to eat three Shabbat meals: evening, noon, and late afternoon. These are “sacred meals,” both in their ceremonial character and in their deeper meaning, meals in which the Jewish family, as a religious (and not merely social) unit, communites with the sanctity of the day. The first two of the three meals begin with kiddush (“sanctification”), a special benediction usually said over a cup of wine (or spirits or grape juice in the case of people who do not tolerate alcohol well). After netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing), the meal itself begins. In most Jewish communities it is customary to sing zemirot, special Sabbath hymns, at the table. This custom is not restricted to people with special musical talents; rather, each person at the table participates as best he can. The effect is to reinforce both the sense of togetherness and the element of zevah mishpahah–familial offering–appropriate to the Sabbath table.

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Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the author of works bringing traditional Torah scholarship and Hasidic thought to a contemporary audience. He lives in Jerusalem.

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