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In this first part of a two-part article, Rabbi Steinsaltz describes in some detail the prohibitions for Shabbat as understood by traditionalist Jews. Reprinted from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (transl. Michael Swirsky), published by Jason Aronson Inc.
The Jewish Sabbath is unique. Indeed, a comparison with the Christian and Muslim imitations of it–not to mention the modern secular “weekend”–only underlines this uniqueness. Shabbat is not simply a day when it is customary to attend public prayer. It is a day when one enters a completely different sphere. The rabbinic sayings comparing Shabbat to the world to come are more than mere figures of speech. Basically, Shabbat means putting aside creative activity in order to concern oneself completely with personal reflection and matters of the spirit, free of struggle and tension.
The key element in Shabbat observance is a kind of passivity: refraining from “work.” Yet, over a period of three thousand years, the Jewish people have developed a tradition that transforms what might otherwise be a day of mere inactivity into one of joy and inner peace, “a day of rest and holiness,” in the words of the liturgy. This tradition is one of the hallmarks of Jewish culture as a whole.
Approached from a distance, the body of Shabbat prohibitions can appear to be an endless maze of details: “don’t do,” “don’t move,” “don’t touch.” Yet for all the elaboration these prohibitions have received, the principles underlying them are actually quite simple. The key formula here is, “Thou shalt not do any manner of melakhah.” The concept of melakhah is understood both in the simple sense of “work,” which is its plain meaning, and in the more complex sense that flows from the context in which it first appears, the story of the Sabbath of Creation. In the latter case, the term has the meaning of an act of physical creation. What is decisive is not the degree of effort involved, or whether the action receives monetary compensation, but rather whether it results in the appearance of something new in the physical world. Thus, relatively effortless activities like writing and profitless activities like landscaping one’s house become forbidden. Similarly, it is not permitted to kindle or handle fire on Shabbat, a fact that has always been of great practical significance. Not only is smoking prohibited, so is operating a vehicle or tool requiring internal combustion.
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