Shabbat is the first and most sacred institution of the Jewish people. It is a holiday, though it differs from common thought, as it is a holiday that occurs every week rather than annually. Henry Ward Beecher said, “A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.”
Shabbat remembers the Biblical creation of the heavens and earth in six days. It reflects on the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. It looks forward to an age of the Messiah when God reigns victoriously with his people.
Keeping Shabbat involves rest – a biblical concept that goes far beyond staying in bed, or lying on the couch. It is more than just refraining from activity; it involves participating in activities that renew, restore and quiet the spirit. It is more than just worshipping God; it is honoring him as Lord of life and recognizing our own dependence and submission to him. It is not God ceasing creation because He was tired; it is recognition that creation was accomplished and that it was “good.”
There may not be any other Jewish holiday more rooted in the Bible than Shabbat. The word Shabbat means “rest” or “cessation.” It differs that the English connotation for the word rest which involves sleep. The model for biblical Shabbat rest is found in Genesis 2:1-3.
The pattern of work and rest is threaded into the tapestry of creation. It implies stopping the routine for renewal. It requires pause for perspective and revitalized purpose. It is as true and valued as the principle behind leaving a field dormant for a time so that it may be replenished of nutrients and richness. The success of the six days of work hinges upon the rest of the seventh.
Shabbat is the only holiday whose observance is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, which are recounted in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Each passage points out different aspects of Shabbat.
Exodus reminds the believer to remember the Sabbath, the seventh day. It commands the commemoration of the creation of the universe. Deuteronomy stresses how the day should be observed. It connects the observance with the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. It appears to challenge the reader to remember his own experience of slavery and to rejoice in deliverance and the freedom that is enjoyed.
Customs and Rituals
Shabbat is kept on the seventh day of the week, obeying the biblical command, “six days you will labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God (Exodus 20:9-10). Volumes have been written to explain what constitutes work on Shabbat. If there is a particular circumstance in question, a rabbi should be consulted for a definitive answer.
It is traditional to offer a special greeting on Shabbat. A common greeting is “Shabbat Shalom,” Hebrew for “Sabbath Peace.” The greeting offers the hope that Shabbat will be peaceful and fulfilling.
According to tradition, a fire could not be started once Shabbat has begun. Therefore about 20 minutes before sundown, women would light the Shabbat candles. A blessing would then be offered at sunset, as the blessing marks the beginning of Shabbat. Many will cover their eyes while saying the blessing, so that they would not view the burning candles until after the blessing had been completed.
Following the blessing in the home, special Friday evening Shabbat prayers would be offered in the synagogue. If attendance at the synagogue is impossible, the evening prayers could be offered in the home. A festive meal follows prayer time, opened by a Kiddush (Hebrew for “sanctification”) blessings over wine or grape juice, and a Hamotzie blessing over to loaves of bread called Challah.
The meal is to be full and succulent. By eating the best meal of the week, believers are said to be “delighting in the Shabbat.” Fish, chicken, or other meat will be accompanied by salads, vegetables and fruit.
On Shabbat morning, another service is held in the synagogue. This time together features prayer and the weekly public reading of the Torah. Another festive meal is held at lunch, with a smaller meal enjoyed in the late afternoon. Shabbat ends at sundown with a Havdalah (“separation”) service which marks the end of the holy day of rest.
Funerals and Mourning during Shabbat
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism. Overt mourning on Shabbat and Jewish holidays is generally forbidden.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
According to traditions, burials are not be permitted on Shabbat. In fact, strong mourning is not permitted during the Sabbath. Mourners should wear regular shoes, sit on regular chairs, and change into clothing that would show no signs of being in mourning. If a burial took place on the morning leading into the holiday, they could prepare for Shabbat after midday. A mourner would be permitted to review the Torah portion of the Scripture before Shabbat.
If Shabbat occurs during Shiva, the candle lit for Shiva remains lit. If it were to go out on Shabbat, it should not be rekindled. If the family has the tradition of blessing the children on Shabbat, they should not do so during a mourning period.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Shabbat
Shabbat is a special time of rest, renewing a sense of awe for the acts of the Lord. It is a time for family. As such, Shabbat contains moments of remembrance and blessing within the family. It is a perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.