December 8, 2023 |

The Shabbat Experience

The idea of Shabbat is one of the most important Jewish contributions to the world. The Talmud says (Yerushalmi, Berachot 1) that Shabbat is equivalent to (lit. measures up against) all the other commandments in the whole Torah[1]. The Torah begins (Genesis 1) with the seven days of creation leading up to Shabbat, establishing the principle that ALL creation - even that of God's - needs to pause between one stage of completion and the next. Shabbat is one of the 10 Commandments and - for all that people do commit adultery, blaspheme when they stub their toes and disrespect their parents et. al. - Shabbat may be the least-respected of all of them. Its observance has become something of a nice idea - if you're in the mood. For most Jews, it probably doesn't even register that any given Saturday (you know, that day after Friday, when we don't have to go to work?) is actually Shabbat, let alone that there might be observances related to the holy day. Even Yom Kippur - which many (but not most?) Jews still do observe - is called a Shabbat Shabbaton, a special kind of Shabbat.

Shabbat is ubiquitous in the Torah. Over and over again the Torah tries to convey the importance of resting on the seventh. It is found explicitly in almost every sidra (Torah portion) in Sh'mot (Exodus) and is probably hinted to in every section of the Torah. We work six days and rest on the seventh. We work the land of Israel for six years and then let her rest on the seventh - or Sabbatical -- year.[2] We even have a jubilee, a special year celebrating the completion of seven seven-year cycles. The Talmud takes this process even a step further and says that the world we know will only exist for six thousand years and then there will be a 'sabbatical' millenium in which everything we know will be destroyed and a new cyle of some kind will begin (Sanhedrin 97a). Some suggest that this will be when the Mashiach (messiah) will come and, since we are only in the year 5770, we won't know in our lifetimes if they are right or not[3].

In this week's Torah portion - Mishpatim - Moshe ascends the mountain for forty days and forty nights.[4] The Torah describes it as follows:

"And Moshe ascended to the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. And the presence of God dwelt on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it/him [for] six days and He called to Moshe on ther seventh day from inside the cloud...and Moshe went into the cloud and ascended to the mountain and Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights." (Exodus 24:15,16,18)

From here, we can learn two important ideas related to Shabbat observance:

1) You Must Prepare for Shabbat
The six days that Moshe waited (according to most authorities) were days of perisha (Yoma 4), separation and preparation. The more we prepare for Shabbat, the more it matters. This preparation can be physical, as the Talmud says, "one who prepares before Shabbat will have what to eat ON Shabbat." In our house, we clean, cook (well, Shira does, I don't help much in that department), invite guests, leave work early (when necessary), set the table nicely, put on Shabbat clothes and, of course, light Shabbat candles in order to create a Shabbat environment in our home. But it also refers to spiritual preparation. The entire work week changes its character when we know that Shabbat will be its culmination. Each day of the week, we can learn a little bit of the coming week's Torah portion. We belong to a community of people who we look forward to seeing and praying with each week in a synagogue. Each day, we can be conscious of the fact that this is not just a day like any other day but that is taking us on the path from one Shabbat to the next. In Judaism, the days of the week have no names, but are called the first day to Shabbat (Sunday), the fifth day to Shabbat (Thursday) etc. On Wednesdays, the hump day, we even have a custom, at the end of morning services, to sing a little bit of the Friday night service (the first line of "lechu neran'na") to remind ourselves that Shabbat is coming.

2) Shabbat Is An Invitation
At the end of the six day period, God called to Moshe and he ascended to the top of the mountain to experience a personal encounter with Hashem. Because Moshe had prepared for this, he was invited to experience its wonder. There is no doubt that a Saturday can come and go without making an impression on its insensate passengers, but that it because they have not been invited in - have not sought an invitation - to its wonders. By putting Shabbat on your calendar, by making it a part of your routine, you allow yourself to become her invited guest. On another level, inviting guests to our Shabbat table is one of the things that defines our Shabbat, makes our home into a Shabbat environment and makes our Shabbatot enjoyable. When you become part of a community in Shabbat, you become invited by others to share their Shabbat and then pass along the joy by inviting others to share your Shabbat experience.

The Chassidim tell a story about a Jewish merchant caught in a snowstorm as he made his way from one cold Polish village to another. As the snow piled up around his knees and the chill froze his hands, cheeks and bones, he began to despair that he would ever be warm again. He thought of all the times he had been in warmer places and warmer times. Suddenly, he saw a dim light in the distance. He picked up his legs, fortified his frozen soul and walked towards the light. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, he found that there was an inn, with the light on and hot food and a fireplace within. He entered, warmed his bones and slept. Fortified and rested again, with directions to the nearest town, he set off on the next leg of his journey with purpose and joy[5]. This, say the Chassidim, is the joy of Shabbat, a way-station in time that we can take refuge in each week, that will warm us and light the way into the next week.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] There are a few other mitzvot designated likewise, for discussion at another time.
[2] From whence came the idea of an academic/Rabbinic sabbatical in which teachers can rest and research.
[3] Everyone agrees that the Messiah can come earlier; the debate is about the terminus ad quem, the latest date, at which the Messiah can no longer delay.
[4] Some commentators say the meaning of the number forty here is that it is the number of days it takes for a fetus to be considered viable (i.e. have some legal status) in Jewish law.
[5] Paraphrased from Flames of Faith by Rabbi Zev Reichmann, p.22-23, who cites the original source.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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