Shabbat Rest and Renewal

Two elements that are the essence of Shabbat.

In the Torah it is written, “On the seventh day God finished the work… and ceased from all the work … and God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation…” (Genesis 2:2-3). Most people reading that passage find it a bit of a shock. “On the seventh day God finished the work. . . ” But what did God create on the seventh day? Didn’t God “cease. . . from all the work of creation” on the seventh day? What God created on the seventh day, the ancient rabbis tell us, was rest.

The Hebrew word used here is menuchah, and “rest” is an inadequate translation. To say that Shabbat menuchah means a “Sabbath of rest” only tells half the story. In the Shabbat liturgy we are given a more complete, many-layered understanding of the word. It is, the Minchah (afternoon) service tells us, “a rest of love freely given, a rest of truth and sincerity, a rest in peace and tranquility, in quietude and safety.” Yet, at the same time, it is a rest yoked in the same breath to “holiness.” And inextricably linked to that concept is the fact that this rest comes from the Almighty and exists so that we might glorify God’s name, to bring holiness to God.

The Sabbath is the only day of observance mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In the first version of the Decalogue we are enjoined to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8); in the second version, we are told to “observe” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12). What more compelling evidence can one find for the paramount importance of this day?

But not to work? An enforced rest? The rabbis who began to codify Jewish law (halakhah) during the time of the Second Temple, specified  39 categories of prohibited activities– based on the activities that were involved in the building of the Tabernacle as described in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. One should not handle a hammer or money. One should not rearrange the books on a shelf. What sort of holiday is this?

We are commanded in the Torah, “Six days shall you labor and do all your  work.” To abstain from labor on the seventh day is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says in his magnificent little book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), “not a depreciation but an affirmation of labor, a divine exaltation of its dignity.” We are suddenly lifted out of the process of time, removed from the world of natural and social change. Instead of creating the world anew, we are at one with the world created.

We are not beasts of burden. We should not live to work. We should not be chained to routine. Shabbat unchains us.

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.

George Robinson is the author of Essential Judaism.

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