31 July 2017 | Shabbat happens every week from a little before sundown on Friday to a little after sundown on Saturday. Despite its frequency, Shabbat is the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar. It originates at the beginning of the world, as God ended the work of Creation on the seventh day, blessing and sanctifying it. Shabbat is the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, and Jews are commanded multiple times throughout the Torah to observe this day. Shabbat observance has been a central, essential focus of Judaism for centuries.
Why is Shabbat observance so important? Why is it important that we take one day out of the week and make it different and special?
The answer to these questions begins with an observation about the first Shabbat. When God creates the world, God stops working and rests on the seventh day. (Genesis 2:2-3) Why? Surely God had no need to rest. In Jewish understanding, God is omnipotent. Why are we told that an unlimited source of power took a day to rest? Why are we told to do the same?
Part of the answer is in recognizing God’s majesty over the world. By behaving as God did at creation, we honor God and acknowledge God’s blessing and beneficence. After all, the best way to show respect to a Sovereign and Parent is to do what they do. The first version of the Ten Commandments implies this reason by emphasizing God’s creation of the world. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The second recitation of the Ten Commandments implies a different motivation for Shabbat observance. Like the first recitation, the second says that not only you, but all members of the household, servants, strangers living among the Israelites, and animals all must observe Shabbat. Moses reminds the people that they were slaves in Egypt, and they enjoy freedom only because God redeemed them. Shabbat ensures that everyone shares that freedom by making sure that, unlike, slaves, everyone gets a day free from ordinary work. Shabbat is social justice enacted.
The purpose of Shabbat goes even deeper, especially for those of us today who enjoy plenty of leisure time and holidays. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted this when he identified on of the most important aspects of Judaism as the sanctification of time. In Judaism, we don’t bless objects or venerate things. Instead, we create holy time, and more than anything else, no matter how many physical possessions we have, that sacred time rejuvenates us and gives life meaning.
Think about your favorite memory of a treasured object from your childhood. Is it the actual object or possession that created the good memory, or is it the time when you enjoyed the object? Aren’t the most treasured parts of our lives the time we get to spend with our friends and loved ones, and the experiences we have with them? Sacred time is what makes our lives sweet, and Judaism seeks to crate this sacred time with Shabbat.
On Shabbat we seek to distinguish one day from the ordinary and make it special. Six days a week we concern ourselves with matters of the physical world – our work, our homes, and our tangible needs. Shabbat is a day for us to focus on the spiritual, which allows us to better handle the challenges of the week once Shabbat ends.
The three main goals of Shabbat are menuchah (rest), oneg (joy), and kedushah (holiness).
An excerpt from Rabbi Jeffrey Wildstein, 2015. Idiot’s Guides As Easy As It Gets: Judaism. Alpha.