Shabbat (Hebrew: שַׁבָּת [ʃa’bat], “rest” or “cessation”) or Shabbos ([‘ʃa.bəs], Yiddish: שבת) or the Sabbath is Judaism’s day of rest and seventh day of the week, on which religious Jews and certain Christians (such as Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists) remember the Biblical creation of the heavens and the earth in six days and the Exodus of the Hebrews, and look forward to a future Messianic Age. Shabbat observance entails refraining from work activities, often with great rigor, and engaging in restful activities to honor the day. Judaism’s traditional position is that unbroken seventh-day Shabbat originated among the Jewish people, as their first and most sacred institution, though some suggest other origins. Variations upon Shabbat are widespread in Judaism and, with adaptations, throughout the Abrahamic and many other religions.
According to halakha (Jewish religious law), Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Shabbat is ushered in by lighting candles and reciting a blessing. Traditionally, three festive meals are eaten: in the evening, in the early afternoon, and late in the afternoon. The evening meal typically begins with a blessing called kiddush and another blessing recited over two loaves of challah. Shabbat is closed the following evening with a havdalah blessing. Shabbat is a festive day when Jews exercise their freedom from the regular labors of everyday life. It offers an opportunity to contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and to spend time with family.
The word “Shabbat” derives from the Hebrew verb shavat (Hebrew: שָׁבַת). Although frequently translated as “rest” (noun or verb), another accurate translation of these words is “ceasing [from work]”, as resting is not necessarily denoted. The related modern Hebrew word shevita (labor strike), has the same implication of active rather than passive abstinence from work. The notion of active cessation from labor is also regarded as more consistent with an omnipotent God’s activity on the seventh day of Creation according to Genesis.
Sabbath is given special status as a holy day at the very beginning of the Torah in Genesis 2:1–3. It is first commanded after the Exodus from Egypt, in Exodus 16:26(relating to the cessation of manna) and in Exodus 20:8–11 (as the fourth of the Ten Commandments). Sabbath is commanded and commended many more times in the Torah and Tanakh; double the normal number of animal sacrifices are to be offered on the day. Sabbath is also described by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, and Nehemiah.
The longstanding traditional Jewish position is that unbroken seventh-day Shabbat originated among the Jewish people, as their first and most sacred institution. The Mosaic tradition quotes an origin from the Bible of special creation, though some suggest a later, naturalistic origin.
Seventh-day Shabbat did not originate with the Egyptians, to whom it was unknown; and other origin theories based on the day of Saturn, or on the planets generally, have also been abandoned.
The first non-Biblical reference to Sabbath is in an ostracon found in excavations at Mesad Hashavyahu, which is dated 630 BCE.
Connection to Sabbath observance has been suggested in the designation of the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first and twenty-eight days of a lunar month in an Assyrian religious calendar as a ‘holy day’, also called ‘evil days’ (meaning “unsuitable” for prohibited activities). The prohibitions on these days, spaced seven days apart, include abstaining from chariot riding, and the avoidance of eating meat by the King. On these days officials were prohibited from various activities and common men were forbidden to “make a wish”, and at least the 28th was known as a “rest-day”. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia advanced a theory of Assyriologists like Friedrich Delitzsch (and of Marcello Craveri) that Shabbat originally arose from the lunar cycle in the Babylonian calendar containing four weeks ending in Sabbath, plus one or two additional unreckoned days per month. The difficulties of this theory include reconciling the differences between an unbroken week and a lunar week, and explaining the absence of texts naming the lunar week as Sabbath in any language.
Status as a holy day
The Tanakh and siddur describe Shabbat as having three purposes:
- To commemorate God’s creation of the universe, on the seventh day of which God rested from (or ceased) his work;
- To commemorate the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt;
- As a “taste” of Olam Haba (the Messianic Age).
Judaism accords Shabbat the status of a joyous holy day. In many ways, Jewish law gives Shabbat the status of being the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar:
- It is the first holy day mentioned in the Bible, and God was the first to observe it with the cessation of Creation (Genesis 2:1–3).
- Jewish liturgy treats Shabbat as a “bride” and “queen”
- The Sefer Torah is read during the Torah reading which is part of the Shabbat morning services, with a longer reading than during the week. The Torah is read over a yearly cycle of 54 parashioth, one for each Shabbat (sometimes they are doubled). On Shabbat, the reading is divided into seven sections, more than on any other holy day, including Yom Kippur. Then, the Haftarah reading from the Hebrew prophets is read.
- A tradition states that the Jewish Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Shabbatoth.
- The punishment in ancient times for desecrating Shabbat (stoning) is the most severe punishment in Jewish law.
Honoring Shabbat (kavod Shabbat) on Preparation Day (Friday) includes bathing, having a haircut and cleaning and beautifying the home (with flowers, for example).
According to Jewish law, Shabbat starts a few minutes before sunset. Candles are lit at this time. It is customary in many communities to light the candles 18 minutes before sundown (tosefet Shabbat, though sometimes 36 minutes), and most printed Jewish calendars adhere to this custom. The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a prayer service welcoming the arrival of Shabbat. Before Friday night dinner, it is customary to sing two songs, one “greeting” two Shabbat angels into the house and the other praising the woman of the house for all the work she has done over the past week. After blessings over the wine and challah, a festive meal is served. Singing is traditional at Sabbath meals.
According to rabbinic literature, God via the Torah commands Jews to observe (refrain from forbidden activity) and remember (with words, thoughts, and actions) Shabbat, and these two actions are symbolized by the customary two Shabbat candles. Candles are lit usually by the woman of the house (or else by a man who lives alone). Some families light more candles, sometimes in accordance with the number of children.
Shabbat is a day of celebration as well as prayer. It is customary to eat three festive meals: Dinner on Shabbat eve (Friday night), lunch on Shabbat day (Saturday), and a third meal (a Seudah Shlishit) in the late afternoon (Saturday). It is also customary to wear nice clothing (different from during the week) on Shabbat to honor the day.
Many Jews attend synagogue services on Shabbat even if they do not do so during the week. Services are held on Shabbat eve (Friday night), Shabbat morning (Saturday morning), and late Shabbat afternoon (Saturday afternoon).
With the exception of Yom Kippur, which is referred to in the Torah (Lev 23:32) as “Shabbat of Shabbatoth”, days of public fasting are postponed or advanced if they coincide with Shabbat. Mourners sitting shivah (week of mourning subsequent to the death of a spouse or first-degree relative) outwardly conduct themselves normally for the duration of the day and are forbidden to display public signs of mourning.
Although most Shabbat laws are restrictive, the fourth of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is taken by the Talmud and Maimonides to allude to the positive commandments of Shabbat. These include:
- Honoring Shabbat (kavod Shabbat): on Shabbat, wearing festive clothing and refraining from unpleasant conversation. It is customary to avoid talk about money or business matters on Shabbat.
- Recitation of kiddush over a cup of wine at the beginning of Shabbat meals, or at a reception after the conclusion of morning prayers (see the list of Jewish prayers and blessings).
- Eating three festive meals. Meals begin with a blessing over two loaves of bread (lechem mishneh, “double bread”), usually of braided challah, which is symbolic of the double portion of manna that fell for the Jewish people on the day before Sabbath during their 40 years in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It is customary to serve meat or fish, and sometimes both, for Shabbat evening and morning meals. Seudah Shlishit (literally, “third meal”), generally a light meal that may be pareve or dairy, is eaten late Shabbat afternoon.
- Enjoying Shabbat (oneg Shabbat): Engaging in pleasurable activities such as eating, singing, spending time with the family and marital relations.
- Recitation of havdalah.
Havdalah (Hebrew: הַבְדָּלָה, “separation”) is a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the symbolic end of Shabbat, and ushers in the new week. At the conclusion of Shabbat at nightfall, after the appearance of three stars in the sky, the havdalah blessings are recited over a cup of wine, and with the use of fragrant spices and a candle, usually braided. Some communities delay havdalah later into the night in order to prolong Shabbat.
Jewish law (halakha) prohibits doing any form of melakhah (מְלָאכָה, plural melakhoth) on Shabbat, unless an urgent human or medical need is life-threatening. Though melakhah is commonly translated as “work” in English, a better definition is “deliberate activity” or “skill and craftmanship”. There are 39 categories of prohibited activities (melakhoth) listed in Mishnah Tractate Shabbat 7:2.
The term shomer Shabbat is used for a person (or organization) who adheres to Shabbat laws consistently. The shomer Shabbat is an archetype mentioned in Jewish songs (e.g., Baruch El Elyon) and the intended audience for various treatises on Jewish law and practice for Shabbat (e.g., Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilkhata).
There are often disagreements between Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews as to the practical observance of the Sabbath. The (strict) observance of the Sabbath is often seen as a benchmark for orthodoxy and indeed has legal bearing on the way a Jew is seen by an orthodox religious court regarding their affiliation to Judaism.
The 39 categories of melakhah are:
- plowing earth
- binding sheaves
- shearing wool
- washing wool
- beating wool
- dyeing wool
- making two loops
- weaving two threads
- separating two threads
- sewing stitches
- scraping hide
- marking hide
- cutting hide to shape
- writing two or more letters
- erasing two or more letters
- extinguishing a fire
- kindling a fire
- putting the finishing touch on an object, and
- transporting an object (between private and public domains, or over 4 cubits within public domain)
The categories of labors prohibited on Shabbat are exegetically derived — on account of Biblical passages juxtaposing Shabbat observance (Ex. 35:1-3) to making the Tabernacle (Ex. 35:4 ff.) — that they are the kinds of work that were necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. They are not explicitly listed in the Torah; the Mishnah observes that “the laws of Shabbat … are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they are little Scripture but many laws”. Many rabbinic scholars have pointed out that these labors have in common activity that is “creative”, or that exercises control or dominion over one’s environment.
Orthodox and Conservative
Different streams of Judaism view the prohibition on work in different ways. Observant Orthodox and Conservative Jews refrain from performing the 39 prohibited categories of activities. Each melakhah has derived prohibitions of various kinds. There are, therefore, many more forbidden activities on Shabbat; all are traced back to one of the 39 above principal melakhoth.
Given the above, the 39 melakhoth are not so much activities as “categories of activity”. For example, while “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, and “selecting” refers exclusively to the separation of debris from grain, they refer in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish (gefilte fish is one solution to this problem).
Orthodox and some Conservative authorities rule that turning electric devices on or off is prohibited as a melakhah; however, authorities are not in agreement about exactly which one(s). One view is that tiny sparks are created in a switch when the circuit is closed, and this would constitute lighting a fire (category 37). If the appliance is purposed for light or heat (such as an incandescent bulb or electric oven), then the lighting or heating elements may be considered as a type of fire that falls under both lighting a fire (category 37) and cooking (i.e., baking, category 11). Turning lights off would be extinguishing a fire (category 36).
Another view is that a device plugged into an electrical outlet of a wall becomes part of the building, but is nonfunctional while the switch is off; turning it on would then constitute building (category 35) and turning it off would be demolishing (category 34). Some schools of thought consider the use of electricity to be forbidden only by rabbinic injunction, rather than because it violates one of the original categories.
A common solution to the problem of electricity involves preset timers (Shabbat clocks) for electric appliances, to turn them on and off automatically, with no human intervention on Shabbat itself. Some Conservative authorities reject altogether the arguments for prohibiting the use of electricity. Some Orthodox also hire a “Shabbos goy”, a Gentile to perform prohibited tasks (like operating light switches) on Shabbat.
A halakhically authorized Shabbat mode added to a power-operated mobility scooter may be used on the observance of Shabbat for those with walking limitations, often referred to as a Shabbat scooter. It is intended only for individuals whose limited mobility is dependent on a scooter or automobile consistently throughout the week.
Seemingly “forbidden” acts may be performed by modifying technology such that no law is actually violated. In Sabbath mode, a “Sabbath elevator” will stop automatically at every floor, allowing people to step on and off without anyone having to press any buttons, which would normally be needed to work. (Dynamic braking is also disabled if it is normally used, i.e., shunting energy collected from downward travel, and thus the gravitational potential energy of passengers, into a resistor network.) However, many rabbinical authorities consider the use of such elevators by those who are otherwise capable as a violation of Shabbat, with such workarounds being for the benefit of the frail and handicapped and not being in the spirit of the day.
Many observant Jews avoid the prohibition of carrying by use of an eruv. Others make their keys into a tie bar, part of a belt buckle, or a brooch, because a legitimate article of clothing or jewelry may be worn rather than carried. An elastic band with clips on both ends, and with keys placed between them as integral links, may be considered a belt.
Shabbat lamps have been developed to allow a light in a room to be turned on or off at will while the electricity remains on. A special mechanism blocks out the light when the off position is desired without violating Shabbat.
The Shabbos App is a proposed Android app claimed by its creators to enable Orthodox Jews, and all Jewish Sabbath-observers, to use a smartphone to text on the Jewish Sabbath. It has met with resistance from some authorities.
We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat. People asked, ‘Why are you here? There are no Jews here’, but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives …. We are desecrating Shabbat with pride.— Mati Goldstein, commander of the Jewish ZAKA rescue-mission to the 2010 Haiti earthquake
Various other legal principles closely delineate which activities constitute desecration of Shabbat. Examples of these include the principle of shinui (“change” or “deviation”): A violation is not regarded as severe if the prohibited act was performed in a way that would be considered abnormal on a weekday. Examples include writing with one’s nondominant hand, according to many rabbinic authorities. This legal principle operates bedi’avad (ex post facto) and does not cause a forbidden activity to be permitted barring extenuating circumstances.
Reform and Reconstructionist
Generally, adherents of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism believe that the individual Jew determines whether to follow Shabbat prohibitions or not. For example, some Jews might find activities, such as writing or cooking for leisure, to be enjoyable enhancements to Shabbat and its holiness, and therefore may encourage such practices. Many Reform Jews believe that what constitutes “work” is different for each person, and that only what the person considers “work” is forbidden. The radical Reform rabbi Samuel Holdheim advocated moving Sabbath to Sunday for many no longer observed it, a step taken by dozens of congregations in the United States in late 19th century.
More rabbinically traditional Reform and Reconstructionist Jews believe that these halakhoth in general may be valid, but that it is up to each individual to decide how and when to apply them. A small fraction of Jews in the Progressive Jewish community accept these laws much the same way as Orthodox Jews.
All Jewish denominations encourage the following activities on Shabbat:
- Reading, studying, and discussing Torah and commentary, Mishnah and Talmud, and learning some halakha and midrash.
- Synagogue attendance for prayers.
- Spending time with other Jews and socializing with family, friends, and guests at Shabbat meals (hachnasat orchim, “hospitality”).
- Singing zemiroth, special songs for Shabbat meals (commonly sung during or after a meal).
- Marital relations between husband and wife.
Several Christian denominations, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of God (7th Day), the Seventh Day Baptists, and many others, observe seventh-day Sabbath. This observance is celebrated from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Some of Messianic Judaism considers its Sabbath to be kept according to Jewish doctrinal tradition, while most of Rabbinic Judaism disagrees.
The principle of weekly Sabbath also exists in other beliefs. Examples include the Babylonian calendar, the Buddhist uposatha, the Islamic jumu’ah, and the Unification Church’s Ahn Shi Il.