Shabbat Rest and Renewal

Two elements that are the essence of Shabbat.

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Shabbat is meant to be a day of peace. It offers us a chance for peace with nature, with society, and with ourselves. The prohibitions on work are designed to make us stop--if only for one day of the week--our relentless efforts to tame, to conquer, to subdue the earth and everything on it. The prohibition against making fire is also said by the rabbis to mean that one should not kindle the fires of controversy against one's fellow humans. And, finally, the Sabbath offers us a moment of quiet, of serenity, of self-transcendence, a moment that allows us to seek and perhaps achieve some kind of internal peace.

Shabbat is also a time of joy, of good food and wine (even if the food preparation must be done beforehand). Judaism is most decidedly not an ascetic religion. It is no accident that it is considered a mitzvah (a commandment) to have sexual relations with your spouse on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was designed to be "a delight," as our liturgy tells us. It is a time when families and friends gather together for meals, songs, and stories. The Friday night rituals of candle-lighting, making kiddush (blessing the wine for the holiday) and ha-motzi (blessing before eating bread) are followed the next day by the tradition of the seudah shlishit, the third meal, on Shabbat afternoon, another festive gathering, often accompanied by Torah study and lively discussion, and finished off with more singing of zemirot (songs). Even as the Sabbath ends, there is a tradition that allows us to extend the pleasure, the melaveh malkah (farewell to the [Shabbat] Queen), when Jews gather to reluctantly bid goodbye to the Sabbath after Havdalah, (ceremony of separation) with more songs, food, and wine.

But what about rest, menuchah? Rest means many things to different people and the crush of the modern world buffeting us has changed its definition for many. There is a significant body of halakhah governing Shabbat. Discussions of these laws comprise two major tracts of the Talmud, Shabbat, and Eruvin, and include almost 200 chapters in the Shulhan Arukh, an important code[collection] of Jewish Law.

For the traditionally observant Jew, these are the laws that one abides by, to refrain from the 39 categories of forbidden actions and the post-rabbinic rulings that apply those categories to the modern world. But what of those whose lives are not guided by halakhah? Their Shabbat observance is based on the fulfilling the precepts of Shabbat joy and rest according to varied interpretations. An observant Jew, whether traditional or liberal, will spend much of Sabbath in the synagogue or at the Shabbat table with family and friends.

Perhaps we should be guided by a relatively simple principle, one derived from the quotation from Genesis with which we opened. We rest in a Sabbath sense when we no longer interfere with the world. In this way, we emulate God's rest on the Sabbath, when the Creator ceased working on the world. During the six days of Creation, God asserted mastery over the universe by actively changing it. Then came a day in which the Creator relinquished that mastery to rest. We emulate God when we relinquish our mastery over the world on the Sabbath, by refraining from altering nature. For one day, we declare a truce between ourselves and the rest of God’s creations.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.