People talk about keeping Shabbat, observing Shabbat, or making Shabbat. By "keeping" or "observing," they mean following basic principles in Jewish law about not working on Shabbat. By "making" Shabbat, they mean doing the preparatory work of cooking and readying the household, saying the blessings, and creating a special atmosphere. What making Shabbat looks like varies from household to household, according to each family's tradition and custom.
In trying to figure out what it means to refrain from work on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud, the foundational code of Jewish law, turned to Exodus 31, which discusses both the importance of refraining from labor on Shabbat, and the rules for the construction of the portable temple that the Israelites carried in the desert as they journeyed to the land God had promised them. The rabbis took the list of 39 activities prohibited in the building of the portable temple and concluded that because they were in the same verse that talked about not working on the Sabbath, they were also prohibited on Shabbat.
Succeeding generations have had to decide whether new activities that didn't exist in the time of the portable temple fit into these 39 categories. Traditionally observant Jews won't use their cars on Shabbat (because the internal combustion engine is like lighting a fire, and lighting a fire is prohibited) or turn on their lights (because the act of flipping a switch builds a circuit, and building is another category of work). Jews who agree that it's a positive thing not to work on Shabbat often have differences of interpretation about what constitutes work. The challenge of deciding for yourself how to observe Shabbat (and the other laws of the Torah) is a basis of of modern day Judaism. Freedom to decide for yourself can be both liberating and challenging.
The particulars of Shabbat observance have become a sort of litmus test separating different groups of Jews. The happy, peaceful day of rest is a huge source of contention. This is not a new problem; we've been arguing about how to do Shabbat for centuries.
Whether or not you choose to adhere to all 39 prohibitions, the attempt to change your behavior to preclude work can have a very positive impact. If you don't cook, drive, use your phone or computer, you really have to relax. Even if you do those things, but set the day apart as time to spend with family and friends, you'll mark Shabbat as distinct from the rest of the week.
Here are some historical examples of the arguments Jews have had over how to do Shabbat:
- In late antiquity, a group of Jews called the Karaites rejected the interpretations of the rabbis who wrote the Talmud and based their behavior on their own reading and understanding of the laws of the Torah. Their disagreement began over whether they could keep food warm in an oven on Shabbat.
- In early 19th century Germany, the Reform movement decided to incorporate musical instruments in Shabbat services in order to lure music-loving German Jews to synagogue. Orthodox Jews objected, as it was their understanding that this violated Jewish law. It was one of several items of ritual practice that divided the two groups.
- In the early 20th century, some Reform Jews tried to move the main service of the week to Sunday, because it was difficult for some Jews to get Saturdays off of work.
- In 1960, Conservative movement rabbis ruled that it was permissible for Jews to drive on Shabbat, but only to synagogue. Orthodox Jews disagreed.
As you can see, Jews have a history of interpreting and reinterpreting the Torah and what God commanded. But Shabbat isn't something you can do wrong.
You can create your own traditions. Begin with candles, wine, and challah and you too can bring holiness and peace to your home. Bless the food, the day, and each other, in English or Hebrew, before eating your Friday night dinner. Everyone can have Shabbat, If you want it, you can have it — this Friday night!
Return to the Guide to Shabbat and Havdalah for Interfaith Families Resource Guide.