of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


242: To be careful about honouring Shabbat

Even someone who is dependent on others [for their sustenance], should force himself to honour Shabbat [with extra food] if he has some small amount [of his own resources]. They only said "Make your Shabbat a weekday and do not become dependent on others" regarding someone who is in dire [economic] straits. For this reason one should economize during the rest of the week in order to honour Shabbat. It is an rule laid down by Ezra that laundry should be done on Thursdays in honour of Shabbat. Note: It is customary to knead [dough] in the home in sufficient amount to require Ĥallah to be taken [from it] and to make from it loaves for breaking bread on Shabbat or YomTov; this is part of honouring Shabbat and YomTov and the custom should not be changed. Some [authorities] have written that in a few places they have the custom on Friday night of eating a dish called 'pashtidah' in commemoration of the manna which was covered above and below.


Too often familiarity with a text blinds us to some of its most salient points. In the above quotation, for example, we should be aware of the phrase which is usually translated "a sabbath unto the Lord your God": Shabbat belongs to God, it is his special day, as it were, a day which we are invited to share and commanded to observe. The rest of Israel's holy days are determined by the calendar, and the calendar is regulated by the sages. Shabbat is completely independent of the calendar: it occurs every seventh day regardless of the date. The incidence of Shabbat is not, as it were, determined by man but by God in an everalsting, unbroken cycle.

But to describe Shabbat as a day on which certain tasks are not performed, a day on which 'work' is prohibited, is to do a great injustice to the essence of the institution. Shabbat is far more than 'just' that. For those who observe it in the traditional manner Shabbat is a day unlike any other day: in a very real sense for such people Shabbat is not really a day of the week. It is almost as if there are six days in the week and then there is Shabbat - vastly different, inherently different, something quite extraordinary.

This magical transformation is brought about through the mechanism of the way the day is observed. All the requirements and prohibitions of Shabbat are not 'because' it is Shabbat. They 'make' Shabbat, they 'create' Shabbat, they are Shabbat. They are the building blocks by which this refuge within time is actually created. Without them the illusion of 'a different world' and 'time out of time' could not be created - and it is an illusion, of course. For those that understand and enjoy it it is the most magnificent illusion one could imagine. If we let certain mundane things intrude themselves into the illusion it is destroyed. It is rather like going to a concert: I can be completely immersed and captivated by the sublimity of Beethoven's 9th symphony, but the moment the person sitting next to me receives a call on their cellphone the sublimity is gone, the captivation has been destroyed. The moment the mundane is permitted to intrude into the performance it becomes 'just music'.

This essential nature of Shabbat observance must constantly be borne in mind, otherwise the multifarious requirements and prohibitions are reduced to irksome restrictions and cease to be the very bricks and mortar with which the magnificent structure is erected and maintained. Most modern Conservative Jews are not able to 'plunge straight into the deep end' as the Shulĥan Arukh does; most of us need some kind of over-arching rationale to make a unifying sense of all the multifarious regulations. Throughout the ages many great scholars and sages have attempted to provide such an encompassing rationale for Shabbat. In my opinion the greatest of the great in this regard is a small book, a monograph, written by one of Conservative Judaism's greatest sons, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshu'a Heschel [1907-1972]. I heartily recommend to everybody to read this work, "The Sabbath: It's Meaning For Modern Man". I present here some short excerpts to illustrate Rabbi Heschel's unique contribution.

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time... Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate...

Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time... One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness... When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time... The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses...

The Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world...

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere. It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us.