Shabbat – the Heart of Jewish Life

Rabbi Janet Burden
14 December 2006
The New Statesman

The rabbi explains the sabbath – a day of rest and worship

Ethical monotheism is indisputably the foundation of Judaism, its intellectual core. No matter how pure and grand that concept is, however, I do not believe that it alone would have sustained the Jewish people throughout the centuries of exile, hardship and persecution.

Something else has held the people together and nourished their souls: Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Throughout our generations, the Jewish people have kept Shabbat as a sign of our covenantal relationship with the Eternal One. In so doing, we introduced into the world the concept of ‘sacred time’. After the ethical teachings of the Bible, I would say this is the most important gift our tradition has given us.

Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is a day of stopping both business and ‘busy-ness’. It is a day intended to recall the final Divine act of Creation: to cease from work and to be at rest.

It is a day on which we refrain from interfering with the world around us and instead take time out to appreciate the gifts that we have. To an untrained eye, Shabbat observance can seem to be all about restrictions: traditionally, Jews don’t work, shop, or travel on this day. But one can just as easily understand these as ‘freedoms’.

We are free to enjoy the economic armistice Shabbat affords those who keep it. We are free from the society’s manufactured desires to acquire and to possess. We are free to spend time with our loved ones, to share meals with our family or community, to sing, to study and to pray. All of these things go to make Shabbat a real delight.

Jews celebrate Shabbat from just before sunset on Friday until the sky is fully dark on Saturday night. It is not the same thing as the Christian Sunday, which began as a separate celebration. The earliest Christians were, of course, Jews – Jews who continued to observe Shabbat in addition to the first day of the week, on which they commemorated the resurrection of Jesus.

It was only when the early church wanted to separate itself from the synagogue that Sunday became the sole focus of Christian worship. Over time, many of the themes and practices of the Jewish Shabbat were thus transferred onto Sunday.

Although I have never supported the idea of religious observance being imposed by through ‘blue laws’, I do think we miss out on something if we fail to make and mark sacred time. I believe that the world could be radically transformed if we learned to say, at least once a week, ‘It is enough.’

Our rabbinic sages understood Shabbat to be a foretaste of the day when the world would be perfected, when all would live in harmony and peace. Even if that day seems but a distant dream, it is a dream that Jewish tradition demands we keep alive. Shabbat is one of the most important ways we do this.

Shalom Aleichem, v’al kol ha-olam. Peace be upon you and upon all the world.

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