Shabbat in the Community

Much of what Sabbath-observant Jews do during Shabbat takes place outside the orbit of home and family. As much as Shabbat may be an opportunity for nuclear families to spend time together, it is also a chance to enjoy the company of extended family and community in a relaxed atmosphere. During the work week, considerations of profit or advancement often dictate with whom we spend our time; on Shabbat, we can choose for ourselves with whom to spend our time.

The synagogue is the focus of much of the public observance of Shabbat. A ceremony to welcome Shabbat precedes the formal evening service on Friday nights. That service is known as Kabbalat Shabbat–literally, “Welcoming the Sabbath”–and comprises several Psalms and Lekha Dodi, a popular liturgical poem from the 16th century.  It and indeed all Shabbat services are conducted at a more relaxed pace and in a richer musical mode than the weekday liturgy.

Most often the worshippers disperse to private homes for dinner, and it is common for individuals and families to have dinner guests. Some people try to open their Shabbat tables to out-of-towners they just then met at synagogue, visitors who may be in the community for a weekend, on vacation or business. In many communities, the evening prayers are followed on occasion by a communal meal at the synagogue. Some synagogues regularly put off their Shabbat evening service until after the dinner hour and follow it with unprogrammed socializing over light refreshments, often calling this event oneg Shabbat, the traditional term for “the pleasure (or delight) of Shabbat.”

Synagogue worship continues on Saturday. Shabbat morning services usually begin at a later hour than is common on workdays, when participants commonly proceed from the synagogue to their workplaces. The liturgy is extended in several ways, most notably by the public recitation of a sizeable selection from the Torah and a short extra reading (Haftarah) from one of the Bible’s prophetic books. Except in most Reform and Reconstructionist communities, an “additional service” (Musaf) is added, in commemoration of the Shabbat sacrifice in the ancient Temple.

At many synagogues, services are followed on some occasions or every week by a communal Kiddush (“sanctification” of Shabbat)–a very short liturgy recited over wine or another beverage–followed by light refreshments. Some communities have a communal lunch at the synagogue following Kiddush.

Minhah, the afternoon service, is enriched on Shabbat as well–this time by a public Torah reading that offers a first taste of the following week’s Torah portion and by reciting the prayers in a wistful musical mode especial to that one weekly occasion. After dark, a weekday evening service is recited in the synagogue, most often followed by a public recitation of havdalah, the liturgy that ends the Sabbath.

Torah study is one of the many other traditional Shabbat activities that emphasize the value of doing things whose benefit is intrinsic and not instrumental. Friends may gather for peer-led learning, or more formal classes may take place in synagogues or homes at any hour of Shabbat.

In traditionally observant communities, a number of Shabbat restrictions affect how a person interacts with others: Travel by conveyance is banned, for example, and there are even limits on how far one can walk outside the limits of a city or town into unpopulated territory.

While such restrictions serve to bolster one’s ties to the immediate community, there is one rule that is so often felt to be burdensome that rabbinic law worked out a way to circumvent it. That restriction is the ban on carrying anything in public, even a small child unable to move about alone. Specifically, the ban prohibits moving objects from public to private property or between one private domain and another, or even a distance of four cubits (about 2 meters) on public property.

To address this problem, a symbolic enclosure called an eruv may be created, which, by means of a legal technicality, turns a public domain or multiple private ones into one large private domain, thereby enabling people to carry things about. Whole neighborhoods (and in Israel, entire towns and cities) are frequently outfitted with an eruv, making it possible for families with babies and toddlers to bring them to synagogue or elsewhere outside their own homes. This enables a parent or other caregiver to enjoy the same important Shabbat social opportunities as everyone else.

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