Return to Guide to Shabbat for Interfaith Families.
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, in part because there isn't agreement on what observing Shabbat should mean.
In trying to figure out what it means to refrain from work on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud drew on the scriptural verses of Exodus 31, which discusses both the importance of refraining from labor on Shabbat, and the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable temple that the Israelites used in the desert to perform sacrificial worship. The rabbis deduced the nature of the labor one should not do on Shabbat from the list of activities described in the section on building the Tabernacle. They made a list of 39 categories of work that should not be performed on Shabbat.
Succeeding generations have had to decide whether new activities that didn't exist in the time of the Tabernacle fit into these 39 categories. That is why, for example, some Jews won't use their cars on Shabbat--because the internal combustion engine is like lighting a fire, which was a prohibited action. Some won't turn on the lights, because the act of flipping a switch builds a circuit, and building is another category of work. Some Jews who agree that it's a positive thing not to work on Shabbat disagree about what constitutes work.
Adherence to these categories can have a positive impact on the lives of people who follow them as a guide. If you can't cook and can't drive and can't write, you really have to rest. There are a lot of people in Western society who consider themselves lazy, but nevertheless find they have a hard time taking this strict approach to resting on Shabbat. For many of the people who follow them, the restrictions are both challenging and liberating.
The downside of these strict rules is that, since some of them are difficult to keep, many people decide the whole practice of Shabbat is too difficult. Furthermore, 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.
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 disagreed with the rabbis who wrote the Talmud about whether it was following Shabbat prohibitions to keep food warm in an oven. This eventually led to an irrevocable rupture between the two groups. The Karaites' descendants don't consider themselves part of today's Jewish people--all over hot food.
- 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 to the violation of their interpretation of 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 authorities disagreed.
You wouldn't think it was possible to rest and relax wrong.
Despite all this disagreement over the particulars, it isn't. Shabbat isn't something you can do wrong. If you're doing it at all, you're doing it right.
You can bring holiness and peace into your life in 20 minutes of blessings before Friday night dinner. Shabbat is for the entire Jewish community, and unlike many other Jewish observances, Shabbat explicitly includes the non-Jewish members of our families. Everyone can have Shabbat, not only those who are willing to abide by the greatest stringencies. If you want it, you can have it--this Friday night!
The Guide to Shabbat for Interfaith Families is also available as a PDF and Word document.