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Shabbat Customs


Shabbat is observed on the seventh day of the week in fulfillment of the biblical commandment: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God." (Exodus 20:9-10) In accordance with the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sunset and ends on Saturday night with the appearance of three stars. All Jewish days begin at sunset. This is based on the wording of the Creation story in Genesis 1. At the end of the description of each day, we find the phrase: "And there was evening, and there was morning…" Since evening is mentioned first, the ancient rabbis deduced that evening is first.

While Shabbat occurs on Friday evening and Saturday, it is more than simply another day of the week. It is a special day and we invest it with specialness. Friday and Saturday come automatically, but Shabbat takes place only when we make it happen. We prepare for Shabbat by the clothes we wear, by the meals we eat, by the lighting of Sabbath candles, and by chanting the Kiddush over wine to set apart this special time.

Shabbat is such a special time that it has been likened to the Messianic Age. A well-known midrash expresses this thought:

When God was about to give the Torah to the Jewish people, God summoned the people and said to them: "My children, I have something precious that I would like to give you for all time, if you will accept My Torah and observe my commandments."

The people then asked: "Ruler of the universe, what is that precious gift You have for us?"

The Holy One, blessed by God, replied: "It is the world-to-come (the Messianic Age)!"

The Holy One, blessed be God, said: The Shabbat is a sample of the world-to-come, for that world will be one long Shabbat."

Shabbat at Home

Shabbat truly becomes what it was meant to be as we bring it into our lives. We begin to create a Shabbat atmosphere by preparing our house for Shabbat. This need not be a monumental or cumbersome task. For instance, playing Jewish music while you clean can help create the Shabbat mood, and you can learn a lot of Jewish songs in the process. Bringing is some fresh flowers make the house more Shabbosdik (Yiddish for having a Shabbat atmosphere).

Friday night is a time for a special meal. The table is set as befits a visit by a queen since Shabbat is metaphorically seen as a queen. It is a time to use the best table linens, dishes and silverware. On the table are the candlesticks and candles, a Kiddush cup and wine, one or two loaves of challah covered with a challah cover.

Shabbat Greetings

It is traditional greet one another with a special greeting on Shabbat. Some say "Gut Shabbos." This is Yiddish for "Have a good Sabbath." This greeting is prevalent amongst those of Ashkenazi ancestry and those born in Europe. Another common greeting is "Shabbat Shalom." This is Hebrew for "Sabbath Peace" and expresses the hope that one will have a peaceful Shabbat. This Hebrew greeting is used by those from Israel or of Sephardic ancestry. After the founding of the modern state of Israel, when many Jews began learning modern Hebrew, this phrase grew in popularity.

Tzedakah on Shabbat

Many households begin Shabbat by observing the mitzvah of tzedakah. While tzedakah is often translated as "charity," it does not really mean charity. The word is based on a Hebrew root meaning "righteousness" or "justice." The mitzvah (a religious obligation, which flows from the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God) of tzedakah places on every Jew the obligation to right the injustices of society. One of the ways we do this is by contributing money to help individuals or groups who are in need themselves or who are engages in helping others.

Shabbat Candles

The lighting of candles ushers in Shabbat. The practice is a rabbinic institution, which, over the centuries, has become the tradition. According to Jewish tradition, the woman of the household generally lights the Shabbat candles. However, since the lighting of candles is a requirement of Shabbat observance, not necessarily tied to gender, men or women may light them.

Jewish custom requires a minimum of two candles, since the fourth of the Ten Commandments occurs in two separate sections of the Torah in different form:

  1. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
  2. Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

More than two candles may be kindled, but the usual number is two. It is customary to use white candles made especially for Shabbat, but candles of any color may be utilized so long as they will burn for a substantial length of time into the evening.

Orthodox Jews light Shabbat candles approximately fifteen to twenty minutes before sundown. During the summer, Shabbat candles are often lit somewhat earlier, since nightfall comes so late in the evening. Jewish tradition dictates, however, that no candles are to be lit once sundown passes. This practice is not strictly observed in Reform Jewish homes, where Shabbat candles are usually lit immediately prior to the Shabbat meal, whether before or after sunset.

Lighting the Shabbat Candles

According to traditional observance, one would not light a fire once Shabbat has begun. Thus, we light the candles before saying the blessing, since the blessing marks the beginning of Shabbat. However, since a blessing always precedes an act, we cover our eyes while reciting it so as not to view the burning candles until after the blessing has been completed.

The procedure, then, is as follows:

  1. Light the candles.
  2. Cover or close the eyes.
  3. Recite the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and commanded us to kindle the Shabbat candles."

The Friday Night Shabbat Kiddush

Kiddush means "sanctification." It comes from the same Hebrew root as the word kadosh, which means "holy." Exodus 20:8 is the fourth of the Ten Commandments: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (to sanctify it). The Rabbis interpreted the word "remember" as an injunction to sanctify Shabbat both at its beginning and at its end. The Kiddush fulfills the mitzvah at the beginning of Shabbat, the Havdalah service at its conclusion.

Wine is a symbol of joy and life in Judaism. While no specific reference to wine in relation to the Kiddush appears in the Torah, the Rabbis declared that the Kiddush should be recited over wine (". . . borei p'ri hagafen"). Out of sensitivity to those who had no wine, however, the Rabbis also ruled that the Kiddush may be recited over the challah. In such a case, the Motzi is substituted for the prayer over the wine.

While it is customary for at least one adult male to recite the Kiddush, this ritual is a requirement of Shabbat itself and not necessarily the sole domain of men or women. Men or women may recite or chant the Kiddush. In addition, all those who are present at the table should join in the Kiddush, if they so desire.

There is no prescribed form or design for the Kiddush cup. Custom has resulted in beautiful cups being designed especially for Shabbat, to honor the Shabbat and its special significance. But any cup or glass may be used, the only traditional requirement being that it contain at least 3.3 ounces of wine.

The b'rachah (blessing) ". . . borei p'ri hagafen" refers to the fruit of the vine. Traditionally, the wine should be made from grapes and not other fruits. If there are members of the family who do not drink wine, they may recite the Kiddush over grape juice. Reform Jews may or may not observe kashrut and therefore use kosher or non-kosher wine and grape juice as they choose.

The traditional Shabbat Kiddush consists of three sections:

  1. A section from the Creation story in the Torah describing how God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and hallowed it (Genesis 1:31-2:3).
  2. A blessing over the wine.
  3. A blessing over Shabbat itself.

There is a beautiful story that some say explains this order. The rich people and the poor people had an argument over which b'rachah should come first. The rich people said: "The blessing over Shabbat should come first. What is wine? We can have wine every day of the week if we wish!" The poor people said: "The blessing over the wine should come first. Shabbat is special to us. We wish to honor it. But, for us, wine is a sacrifice. We have to save and scrimp to have our wine for Shabbat. Have respect for our sacrifice. Put the blessing over the wine first." The Rabbis debated. Finally, it was decided that the blessing over the wine should come first, out of respect for the sacrifice of the poor. Before we drink the wine, we wish each other "L'chayim" (to life).

The Shabbat Challah

Challah refers to "dough" and specifies the special twisted loaf of bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and other special occasions. Jewish tradition calls for a b'rachah (blessing) expressing thanks to God before eating any food. It represents a recognition that people owe a measure of gratitude to God for providing food for all living things.

Tradition holds that two whole challot (plural of challah) should be used on Shabbat as a remembrance of the double portion of manna that fell in the desert so that no Jew should have to gather food on Shabbat (Exodus 16:22-32). Another interpretation is that the two challot fulfill the biblical injunction articulated in the two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8) and " Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Deuteronomy 5:12).

The challah is covered, often with a special decorative cloth before it is served. If a knife is used, it too is covered. The Rabbis used the challah as a vehicle to teach two important Jewish values: human dignity and the preciousness of peace.

As one looks at the Shabbat table, one notices that the Shabbat candles are in beautiful candlesticks and that the wine is held up in a lovely Kiddush cup. While the b'rachot over them are being recited, the challah lies alone on the table. The Rabbis, seeing this, decreed that the challah should be covered, lest its feelings be hurt by its seemingly secondary status. One rabbi said: "This teaches us concern for the feelings even of inanimate things. And if this is the case, how much more so we should be concerned about the feelings of human beings." Thus, we cover the challot as a lesson in human dignity.

But why cover the knife? On Shabbat, our thoughts are of peace and harmony. The knife, in contrast, is seen as a weapon of war and violence. The knife is covered, then, to remove from sight any visible token of violence in the world. There is another tradition that no knife at all should be used, as a reminder of the prophetic verse: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks" (Isaiah 2:4). The challot are then broken apart by hand, with pieces distributed to all present. Whatever the practice, however, the lesson of the preciousness of peace is paramount.

Saying the Motzi over the Challah

1. The challot are uncovered and the Motzi blessing is recited as follows:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread out of the earth."

Others sitting at the table should either join in reciting the blessing or answer "amen" at its conclusion.

2. The challot are then sliced or broken apart, with pieces distributed to all present.

3. Before eating the challah, it is also traditional to salt it. There are several explanations for this practice. One interpretation is that salt is a spice and thus appropriate to use on the special eve of Shabbat. Others explain that the salt reminds us of the biblical verse "by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat" (Genesis 3:19). The challah thus serves as a tangible symbol of the Jewish values of gratitude to God, the uniqueness of people, the quest for peace, and the dignity and worth of every individual- all important and appropriate themes for Shabbat. There is also a connection to the sacrifices done in the Temple in Jerusalem, in which salt was used on all the offerings on the altar.

Blessing One's Children on Shabbat

There is a Jewish custom in which parents bless their children on Shabbat. This beautiful tradition derives from one of the most touching of biblical stories.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37). The brothers lied to Jacob, his father, and told Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Years later, Joseph, who was by now governor over Egypt, was reunited with his brothers in a moving biblical tale of sibling reconciliation (Genesis 45). Joseph then brought his father to Egypt in order to care for him in his last years.

When Jacob lay on his deathbed, he summoned Joseph in order to bless him. Joseph entered with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. The Torah records this touching scene in Genesis 48:8-11, 20:

And Israel [another name for Jacob] beheld Joseph's sons and said: "Who are these?" And Joseph said unto his father: "They are my sons, whom God hath given me here." And he said: "Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them."

Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him and kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said unto Joseph: "I thought that I would never see your face again; but God has let me see your children also." . . .

And he blessed them that day, saying: "By you shall Israel [the Jewish people] bless, saying: God make you as Ephraim and as Menasseh."

We relive the story of the blessing of the children through a simple Shabbat ceremony, just after blessing the candles and before the Kiddush. The parents place both hands on the child's bowed head and recites the following blessing:

For sons:

Y'simcha Elohim k'Efrayim v'chiM'nasheh.
"May God make you as Ephraim and Menasseh."

For daughters:

Y'simeich Elohim k'Sarah, Rivkah, Racheil, v'Lei-ah.
"May God make you as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah." (These are the four Matriarchs of Jewish history.)

The parents then pronounce the traditional threefold benediction over all the children together:

Y'varech'cha Adonai v'yishm'recha
Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v'yaseim l'cha shalom.

May Adonai bless youand care for you.
May the light of Adonai's countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May Adonai's countenance be lifted upon you and give you peace.

If there are memories that last a lifetime, a parent's blessing is surely one of them. This ritual, sometimes neglected, is a meaningful addition to every family's Shabbat celebration.


Celebrating Shabbat in the Synagogue

Another very important aspect of Shabbat is community. The community gathers for worship each Shabbat, reaffirming our covenantal tie to God and to one another. Some synagogues have their major Sabbath service on Friday evening while others have it on Saturday morning. The service consists of prayers and readings in Hebrew and English (the amount of Hebrew and English varies from synagogue to synagogue), songs, a Torah reading, and a talk or sermon. In many temples, after Shabbat evening services there is an Oneg Shabbat (joy of the Sabbath) at which refreshments are served and there is an opportunity to socialize. Following Shabbat morning services, there is a Kiddush in the synagogue. After the blessings over the wine and the bread, people exchange Shabbat greetings.

One of the things that makes this day so special is that we eat so well. Many people have a special meal following the morning service and another smaller meal (seudah shelishsit) before sunset.

Havdalah

Just as there is a ceremony welcoming Shabbat, so there is one to mark its conclusion. It is called Havdalah, which means "separation." The ceremony takes place on Saturday night after sunset. The lights are usually off or kept dim. It consists of blessings over wine, spices, and a braided candle. While it resembles the Friday night ceremony in many ways, there are some differences as well. Wine is used at both ceremonies. Two candles and a braided challah are used on Friday night while, on Saturday night, one braided candle with many wicks is used. The new element in the ceremony is the blessing of sweet-smelling spices. There is an explanation offered for this ceremony. Because Shabbat is such a special day, each Jew receives an extra soul at the beginning of Shabbat, which departs at the end of Shabbat. To revive us, because we've lost this extra soul, we smell spices at Havdalah, bringing some of the sweetness of the Shabbat with us into the week. The climax of the ritual is when the candle is doused in the wine, and we stand in the darkness of the new week. But the darkness is not one of hopelessness; it is a time when we confront the new week with a vision of what we must do to bring about a better world. We sing the song of the prophet Elijah, symbol of the messianic future - a time when the world will be perfected.

Rest, worship and study are essential elements of Shabbat observance. The principle of Shabbat is to sanctify time. The whole of Shabbat is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more than lighting candles, drinking wine, or attending a service. We sanctify Shabbat by setting it apart, making it distinctive, and differentiating it from the rest of our week. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has written: "Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time."

(Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 8)

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