By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
1) What is the historical significance of Shabbos?
Shabbos is commanded several places in the Torah, most notably in the Ten Commandments. Actually, there are two commandments regarding Shabbos, to sanctify it verbally (Exodus 20:8: “Remember the Sabbath day in order to sanctify it…”), which we do by reciting Kiddush over a cup of wine, and to refrain from acts of labor (Exodus 20:10: “The seventh day is Shabbos to Hashem your God; don’t do any work on it…”). The Sages instituted a number of enactments to enhance Shabbos and to safeguard it from accidental violation. Among the best known of these enactments are the practice to light candles to usher in Shabbos and the prohibition against handling muktzeh (items that have no Shabbos use). Jewish life largely revolves Shabbos, so much so that the days of the week are “the first day to Shabbos, the second day to Shabbos,” etc. As a secular Jewish writer known by the penname Achad Ha’am famously observed, “More than the Jew has kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jew.”
2) Why do you turn off all electronics?
The prohibitions of Shabbos have nothing to do with how strenuous an activity is. Rather, they are acts of creative labor (melacha), derived from the 39 types of labor that were performed in building the Mishkan (Tabernacle – see Exodus 35:2). So, while driving to shul is intuitively “easier” than walking, ease isn’t the issue. Driving involves acts of melacha in the form of ignition and combustion, while walking does not. Similarly, electronic devices entail manipulating electric currents, a variation of igniting and extinguishing, which are forms of Sabbath labor.
3) Do you have to be Jewish to have Shabbos?
Non-Jews may voluntarily perform most of the mitzvos of the Torah. For example, if a non-Jew chooses to keep kosher though not required to do so, such is certainly his prerogative. Shabbos, however, is one of the few exceptions, as Exodus 31:13 defines the day as a unique sign between God and the Jewish people. For this reason, candidates for conversion to Judaism, who are practicing to keep Shabbos, are careful to perform an act of labor each week until their conversion is complete. Similarly, non-Jews may choose to experience the benefits of Shabbos, such as unplugging from the world for a day, so long as they are sure to do something to indicate that they are not fully observing the day.
4) Do you have to be “silent?”
People need not be silent, though certain types of sound are prohibited. For example, musical instruments are rabbinically prohibited as a safeguard out of concern that an instrument may break (a string, a drumhead, a reed, etc.) and require repairs, which would be a Biblical-level violation. (Traditionally, this prohibition extends to clapping, snapping and dancing on Shabbos, though such is not the universal practice.) Additionally, it is considered a disgrace to Shabbos to have the sound of labor in one’s home. Accordingly, one should not set such appliances as a washing machine, dishwasher or clothes dryer close to the start of Shabbos, allowing these devices to make noise once Shabbos has begun. (This is also one of several reasons that one may not set a radio or television on a timer for Shabbos.)
5) What kind of food do you eat?
There are many Jewish communities – Eastern European, Spanish-Portuguese, Yemenite, etc. – each with their own traditional cuisine, so the menu of a Shabbos meal can vary greatly. Certain foods, however, are based on religious practice. For example, as noted above, we sanctify Shabbos by reciting Kiddush over a cup of wine or grape juice. We break bread over two whole loaves to commemorate the manna, a double portion of which fell on Fridays to last through Shabbos (see Exodus 16:22-30). We make sure to eat a hot dish at the daytime meal to counter the mistaken impression that such a thing should be prohibited. This dish is typically a stew called “chulent” by Ashkenazic Jews and “chamim” by Sephardic Jews (both terms derived from words meaning to keep warm). There is also a practice to eat fish on Shabbos, because of which gefilte fish was created. (Removing bones from fish would violate a Sabbath labor; gefilte fish is boneless.)
6) What prayers are recited for Shabbos?
There are a number of special prayers recited on Shabbos. The day is ushered in on Friday evening by reciting a collection of Psalms referred to as “kabbalas Shabbos” (“welcoming the Sabbath”), culminating with the song “L’cha Dodi” (“Come, my beloved”). At home, before sanctifying the day with Kiddush, people sing “Shalom Aleichem” to acknowledge their accompanying angels and to ask for their blessing, and “Eishes Chayil” (“woman of valor”), as praise of the metaphorical “Shabbos queen.” On Shabbos day, we recite extra songs and hymns of praise to God, and a special version of the Amida prayer that omits our usual daily requests in favor of recognizing the unique nature of the day. We also recite an additional prayer service corresponding to the special Shabbos sacrifice that was offered in the Temple.
7) What is the mood of Shabbos?
Shabbos is meant to be a day for “menucha v’simcha” (rest and joy). Public displays of mourning are prohibited on Shabbos and one is supposed to do his best not to be upset, agitated or sad. Additionally, the prophet Isaiah enjoined us to refrain from business talk, physical exertion and other activities inappropriate for the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13). Accordingly, we abstain even from conversation that is “not Shabbosdik” and that would detract from the spiritual nature of the day.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City’s Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.