Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, is unique among world religions. On the last day of each week, from sundown to sundown, Jews everywhere pause from their ordinary routines and usher in a day of holiness. Traditionally Shabbat-observant Jews abstain from 39 categories of work (including lighting a fire, writing and spending money) and spend time with their community praying, eating large meals and singing. Other ways to observe Shabbat might include meditation, retreating into nature, and catching up on sleep.
Taking time to observe Shabbat can be difficult in our fast-paced, 24/7 workaholic world. But it can also be incredibly meaningful. Here are seven reasons Jews choose this weekly refuge.
To Connect with Others
Though Shabbat affords amazing opportunities for individual rest and renewal, it is very much a communal experience. Many Shabbat prayers as well as the Shabbat Torah reading can’t be said in isolation, but are recited in a minyan, a quorum of ten. Traditional Shabbat meals are enjoyed around a table with friends and family. This communal experience of Shabbat is wonderful for the individual, creating a buffer against isolation and loneliness. But it also strengthens the larger community, reliably bringing members together on a regular basis.
To Experience Personal Renewal
It has become a commonplace observation that technology keeps us connected and “on call” at all hours of every day. Shabbat is a natural antidote to this crush of electronic connection, an opportunity to ignore those devices and slow down to connect with oneself. People who observe Shabbat frequently report that it helps them to become better people, that it makes room for more creative thinking, and that it is an opportunity to feel refreshed before diving into another work week. In addition, with its decadent meals and joyful singing, Shabbat becomes an opportunity to taste a better life. This taste, symbolized by the sweet spices that are sniffed at Havdalah (the ceremony ending Shabbat), is carried over into the rest of the week, making life richer all week long. And as a foretaste of the World to Come, Shabbat can inspire the individual to work to make the world a better place.
To Connect to the Natural World.
The origin story for Shabbat is found in Genesis 1-2 in which God creates the world in six days and then surveys the results—“God saw all that God had made, and found it very good”— before resting on the seventh. It doesn’t make sense to all later commentators that an all-powerful deity would need to rest at all, even after so enormous a task as creating the world, and God’s choice to step back to and marvel at the wonder of it all is thought to be a divine example for human beings. We, too, rest once per week, and take an opportunity to marvel at the wonder of the world. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow put it, Shabbat is “a time to live in harmony rather than achieve dominion” over nature. After all, if God was impressed by creation, how much more so should we be awed by it?
To Stop Feeling Like a Slave to Your Work
If work has no end, then it becomes a form of enslavement. This is particularly true in an era when technology makes it possible for a great many of us to do our work anytime, anywhere. Shabbat creates an opportunity to flip that switch, to turn off all the work, and to remind ourselves that we are not slaves to our livelihoods.
To Stop Searching for Life’s Purpose
For some, Shabbat creates an opportunity to connect to the self and discover one’s life purpose. But it can also do just the opposite — offering us an excuse to stop madly seeking a purpose. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut has noted, long ago life’s purpose was simple and clear: survival. In the premodern era, merely achieving adequate shelter, food, and clothing was an achievement to be proud of. In the modern Western world when these things are less difficult to achieve (though we are mindful that they are still difficult for many), it has become less clear what life’s major challenge and purpose ought to be — and too often we cobble together some vague notions of “success,” “happiness” and “fulfillment.” Shabbat affords an opportunity to step back from frantically trying to achieve these amorphous goals, to just be.
Because It’s Challenging
Unplugging, eating wonderful meals, connecting with family and community — these things require discipline and preparation. Also, calming one’s mind, choosing to miss out on the hubbub of the outside world, and taking a pause. It also takes effort to learn prayers and pray with kavanah (intention). Shabbat is not simply a holiday that happens to us, it’s one we make happen, and sometimes doing so is quite difficult. One reason to make Shabbat a part of one’s week is not because it is easy (though taking a nap on Shabbat might be deliciously so), but because it is hard.
Because It’s commanded
For many Jews, the number one reason to observe Shabbat is simply that God commands us to do so. The Torah prohibits work on the seventh day and names a few varieties (gathering sticks, lighting a fire, etc.) while rabbinic literature expands and delineates these prohibitions quite elaborately. Observing Shabbat is about fulfilling the dictates of God, and conforming to standards of observance that have bound Jews together throughout the millennia.