Understanding the Greatest Mitzvah of Them All: Shabbat Explained

Throughout the centuries, plenty of famous rabbis and respected Torah scholars have asserted that if a Jew must keep only a single mitzvah his entire life, then he is obligated to keep the Shabbat. Widely regarded as a precious “gift” to the Jewish people, the Shabbat is deemed so important that according to Talmudic sources, this mitzvah is equal to all other commandments combined.

This sagely distinction puts into perspective just how fundamental and special the mitzvah of Shabbat is in Judaism, however, it doesn’t explain why so many people have only a vague understanding of what Shabbat truly is. Therefore, today we will be looking into some of the most frequently asked questions on Shabbat and discussing them in detail so the magnificence of Shabbat can finally be revealed!

What is Shabbat?

The first step to understanding Shabbat is appreciating why it is celebrated. In the book of Genesis, it says that when God made the world, He created the universe in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. Later, when God took Israel out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai, it says that God commanded the newly freed nation of Israel to observe the holy Shabbat in remembrance of the creation, instructing Israel to sanctify the seventh day of the week as a sacred day of rest. At the time, this mitzvah was merely one of many divine commandments the People of Israel received, but unlike the others, the mitzvah of Shabbat is the axis around which all other Jewish principles revolve.

That said, Shabbat is usually taken very seriously, even by less observant Jews, however, not everyone enjoys keeping this mitzvah. Some people find the Shabbat incredibly difficult because of its multitude of complicated laws, yet despite this, most Jews choose to treasure this mitzvah by viewing it as a labor of love rather than a chore. In traditional Judaism, this loving dedication towards the mitzvah is what sparked the poetic concept of comparing the “spirit” of Shabbat to the presence of a Queen, meaning that when one is in the process of preparing for Shabbat, they should try envisioning the Shabbat as a royal guest they are planning to welcome into their homes.

So how is Shabbat celebrated?

Because Shabbat is essentially the very heart and foundation of the Jewish faith, enjoying a traditional Shabbat celebration is an experience like none other. Most of the beauty in this mitzvah lies in the uniqueness of it, particularly in the idea of refraining from forbidden activities so that one can focus on what truly matters – reconnecting with God and remembering the reason for this mitzvah. Consequently, proper observation of the Shabbat typically begins hours before the Shabbat candles are even lit, as one is obligated to ensure that everything is in place before the onset of Shabbat to avoid the possibility of desecrating Shabbat. This means basic preparations like cooking, cleaning, and setting up the table and candles are often completed well in advance so that one will have time before Shabbat to bathe and dress in one’s nicest clothes in fulfillment of Shabbat’s other important obligation: enveloping oneself in luxury to emphasize the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week.

What are the rules of Shabbat?

As we already mentioned, there are many multi-layered laws to Shabbat, however, the most basic principles are relatively easy to understand. As a sacred day of rest, anything that can be considered laborious is either explicitly forbidden, or only permissible under certain limitations. Additionally, since part of the obligation of Shabbat is to make the day holy, many of Shabbat’s distinctive customs have to do with sanctifying the day and distinguishing it from the rest of the week.

Why is electricity forbidden on Shabbat?

This commonly asked question is an excellent example of how complex the laws of Shabbat can be and there’s plenty of confusion surrounding the topic because the prohibition of using electricity on Shabbat does not originate in the Torah, but rather the restriction was decided upon by Judaism’s most respected leaders. Naturally, this means that some people question the validity of the prohibition; however, there is substantial justification behind the ruling. To answer as simply as possible, the Torah explicitly forbids “working” on the day of rest, but only directly identifies one type of work: the act of igniting a fire. The Torah doesn’t give further detail or explanation other than to single out this particular action, so while the Sages have gone on to clarify that the term “work” also refers to a variety of activities and crafts that went into the building of the Mishkan, any action related to fire is approached and interpreted with caution.

So what does any of this have to do with electricity?

Well, considering that the technology needed to harness the power of electricity didn’t exist thousands of years ago, you obviously won’t find anything written in the Torah about it, but once it was invented and electrical appliances became widespread, it became necessary for rabbinical leaders to make a decision on whether using electricity on Shabbat is permissible or not. It was only after carefully analyzing the mechanics of electricity that it became clear that using it was problematic since electricity’s ability to generate sparks and heat was too similar to the characteristics of fire to deem it permissible. Therefore, it was originally decided that one should not use electrical appliances on Shabbat, although modern innovations in our technology have made it possible to use electricity admissibly under certain Halachic conditions. Nowadays, most electronics are either shut off, put away, or set on timers so they can be used permissibly throughout the holiday.

What is a Shabbat dinner and what do you eat?

Other than being an opportunity to experience spiritual reawakening and rejuvenation, Shabbat is also about experiencing the true joy of Shabbat, known as Oneg Shabbat. According to the Chassidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, our main source of this joy comes from the food we eat on Shabbat. He explains that by preparing special delicacies and fine dishes, we bring honor to the Shabbat, and doing this infuses the food with a unique holiness similar to the holiness of God. For this reason, Rabbi Nachman says that one must make sure he has plenty of food on Shabbat since partaking in the Shabbat meals is enough to make up for desecrating the Shabbat in the past.

The foods served on Shabbat usually vary from family to family; however, most traditional Shabbat meals typically consist of an assortment of side dishes and appetizers like salads, fish, and soups, and elaborate main courses made from meat or chicken. Normally, one will sit down to the Shabbat meal shortly after coming home from synagogue, and guests are usually invited to join in for the festivities. In most homes, the head of the household will recite the Kiddush blessing aloud over a cup of wine or grape juice, followed by everyone washing their hands for bread and listening silently as the HaMotzi blessing is made over beautifully braided loaves of Challah. Once these prayers are iterated, the meal can begin, and in most homes, this means enjoying mouthwatering delicacies accompanied by singing and words of wisdom and Torah.

How long does Shabbat last?

Typically, Shabbat lasts around 25 hours on average, though this could change depending on one’s country and seasonal cycle. Shabbat begins on Friday evening with the lighting of the Shabbat candles around 18 minutes before sunset and finishes the following evening at nightfall when it grows dark enough for at least three stars to be visible in the sky. Once three stars have been spotted, Havdalah can be recited to formally conclude the Shabbat and mark the beginning of the new week.

 

Well Dear Friends, we hope this article has been insightful and enlightening to anyone looking to expand their understanding of the Shabbat!  If you or someone you know is interested in experiencing your own traditional Shabbat, we highly recommend you check out our amazing Shabbat Buying Guide to find exceptional Jewish Judaica from Israel to further enhance your experience!

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