Jewish Man Holding Son and Praying

A Spiritual Shabbat Orientation

How to achieve that extra measure of soulfulness that marks the Sabbath.

Beyond the specific rituals and practices [of Shabbat] lies the question of how we orient ourselves for Shabbat, a time of rest and renewal, a time for pleasure and the growth of the spirit. The tradition tells us that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul, a neshamah yeteirah. One understanding of this notion is that Shabbat enables us to have more of a sense of soulfulness. This can be created in a number of simple ways.

Slow Down

For one thing, our pace on Shabbat can be different from that of the week. Setting aside work, commitments, and responsibilities, there is no reason not to take a leisurely pace on Shabbat. Traditionally, it is forbidden to run on Shabbat. It is too work-like. Slow down. Walk. Have a leisurely breakfast. Spend time with those in your life with whom you are mostly passing ships during the week.

It is particularly helpful to begin Shabbat with a different pace. Often because of Shabbat preparation, the time before Shabbat begins can be hectic, getting everything ready to meet his last deadline of the week. As Shabbat starts, change your pace. When walking to synagogue (even if from the parking lot to the synagogue’s door), stroll rather than walking briskly. One Hasidic rebbe was known to circle the synagogue seven times on Friday night before entering to prepare himself for the onset of Shabbat.

Slowing our pace can also help as we strive to be more aware — aware of the world, of the people in our lives, of ourselves. Ultimately it can bring an awareness of all the gifts that God has given to each of us. Being mindful of God’s gifts can lead to a mindfulness about the Presence of God, thus bringing us to a place where we fulfill the verse Shiviti YHVH le-negdi tamid, “I have placed God before me always” (Psalm 16:8).

Make It Different

Make Shabbat different by what you do. Reserve some special things that you do only on Shabbat. Let your conversation be different on Shabbat. Do not talk about weekday matters, especially work-related things. Do not use Shabbat to plan for things that are to happen during the week. Do not let the stress and obligations of the week creep into Shabbat, whether in thought or in speech.

The tradition’s emphasis on the restrictions for Shabbat is a recognition of how difficult it can be to withstand the pressures of work. Deadlines can come up in work that tempt us to make exceptions and suspend our Shabbat for this week. Only a firm commitment can create the space for an ongoing Shabbat practice. In creating the space for Shabbat, include all the things you need to do, such as running errands, paying bills, fixing the broken door, straightening the house, etc., as activities to be avoided even if they don’t violate the traditional categories of work.

Instead, some of us use Shabbat as a time to reflect on ourselves, to do a heshbon nefeshi, “self-examination.” Review the week for how well you did on your goals for the coming week: That is, work on yourself, not on the world. Others try to focus on the spiritual by studying the Torah portion or other Jewish texts, meditating, or singing.


Shabbat is a time for simplicity, but not asceticism. Fasting is forbidden on Shabbat. The physical world is not denied; rather, it is to be savored. We are to enjoy good food and wine. The tradition encourages couples to have sex on Friday night. Yet Shabbat discourages the acquiring of material things.

We turn inward on Shabbat. Accordingly, some people don’t answer the phone or read their mail or e-mail, just so the world intrudes less on their lives.

If we try, we can cultivate the neshamah yeteirah, that extra measure of soulfulness, which is at the heart of the Shabbat experience.

Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).


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