The Chamilion (The_chamilion)
|Posted on Friday, July 01, 2005 - 12:08 pm: ||
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While all other holidays are special agricultural or historical events in our year, Shabbat provides us with he weekly opportunity to reevaluate our goals and our values, to change the perspective on our otherwise complicated, hurried lives.
For the past three thousand years Shabbat has been carefully observed. It is a day totally separate from the rest of the week, a day of holiness, sacred time. Our rabbis instituted a number of rituals celebrating Shabbat. It is welcomed each week with the lighting of Shabbat candles. The holiness of the day is noted with a special blessing over wine, called the Kiddush (the Sanctification). A special set of Psalms, 95-99 and 29, are read.
In the 16th century, a special ritual to Welcome Shabbat, called Kabbalat Shabbat, was established. It became one of the most popular Jewish rituals.
The Torah calls Shabbat the eternal sign of our covenant with the Divine, the reminder of creation, and reminder of our Exodus from Egypt.
It is easy to see the connection between Shabbat and creation because the Torah states specifically that on the seventh day God ceased the creative sequence. By changing our actions on Shabbat we identify with that original Shabbat and note the perfection in the world around us. We allow the world to sweep over us rather than trying to control our environment.
The connection of Shabbat to the Exodus from Egypt is a little more complicated. At an existential level, slaves cannot feel complete; they are not treated as humans. They do not control their use of time. Only free people can be complete and use their time creatively. Thus Shabbat, the time when we feel complete and free, reminds us of our redemption from Egypt.
God's first command to us in the desert after redemption concerned Shabbat. When we first entered the desert, we had no food. God provided us with manna, a special food which we scooped off the ground each morning.
God commanded the Hebrews on the sixth day to collect enough manna for two days because the manna would not appear on Shabbat. Thus, our first Shabbat observance took place in the desert after our Exodus from Egypt.
As a reminder of the double portion of manna in the desert, we traditionally eat two challot (plural of challah) on Shabbat and the festivals.
Originally, challah was a loaf of bread offered as part of the afternoon sacrifice at the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, our rabbis ordained that every home should become a mini- altar. They therefore ordered all households to take a small piece of raw dough and throw it into the fire before making loaves of bread, as a reminder of the challah offering. This small piece of burnt dough was called the challah. We eventually called the loaves baked after this dough had been burned "challot" (plural of challah). This custom became especially important for loaves prepared for Shabbat and the festivals. Traditionally, challah is baked as a braided loaf.
Exodus 20 commands us to "do no manner of labor on Shabbat." Our sages spent a great deal of time trying to determine what the phrase "Do no manner of labor" meant. They decided that it referred to thirty-nine specific categories of work, which they derived from the Torah text.
Exodus 35:1-3 includes a prohibition against doing any labor on Shabbat. It is followed by a description of all of the work needed to make the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary and its furnishings. Our rabbis connected the Shabbat prohibition with the actions needed to build the Mishkan, and those labors became the official thirty-nine forbidden categories of work.
One of the activities forbidden by the rabbis was carrying anything from one domain to another. It was possible, however, to make a town or a city into a single private domain by surrounding the area with either a wall or a continuous wire. By enclosing the entire area, our sages declared that it was permissible to carry within than enclosure because all of the private domains were thus mixed into one. Today many towns and cities are creating these enlarged "mixed private domains." The process is called "building an eruv, a mixture (of private domains)."
Jews have always prepared for Shabbat with eagerness and joy. The Talmud describes how different sages prepared for Shabbat.
In the sixteenth century, the kabbalists, Jewish mystics, created a special welcoming ceremony for Shabbat called Kabbalat Shabbat, Greeting the Sabbath. This ceremony included Psalms 95-99 and Psalm 29, plus additional songs and readings which they used as a prelude to their Shabbat service.
The prime image of Shabbat is as a bride. Israel, the groom, eagerly awaits Shabbat. Sephardic Jews emphasized this image by chanting the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem (traditionally believed to be between God and the people of Israel) as a prelude to Shabbat. In the sixteenth century, Solomon ben Moses HaLevi Alkabetz, a kabbalist (Jewish mystic) living in Tzfat, expressed this image of Shabbat, the bride, in a beautiful poem called "L'cha Dodi." Lecha Dodi is traditionally chanted as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Shabbat is not observed merely through a set of prohibitions. It is meant to be a day of joy, study, prayer, and recuperation. Our sages instituted some required acts of joy: It is a mitzvah to engage in sexual intercourse with your spouse on Shabbat. It is a mitzvah to drink wine. It is a mitzvah to study Torah and to sing songs of Shabbat joy (called z'mirot) during each Shabbat meal. It is a mitzvah to have three full meals on Shabbat.
This last mitzvah resulted in a number of specific Shabbat customs. One of the thirty-nine forbidden categories of work is to cook on Shabbat. The evening Shabbat meal was no problem; the meal was prepared before Shabbat and could be served ot when the family came home from Kabbalat Shabbat. To fulfill the mitzvah of eating a hot meal during Shabbat day, a special food, cholent, was made.
Although it was forbidden to cook on Shabbat, our sages ordained that it was permitted to put foods on a fire before Shabbat and leave them there throughout the day (so long as they did nothing to them). Jews therefore created long-cooking stews to eat on Shabbat day. These were made from beans, potatoes, and meat and were called cholent. They fulfilled the mitzvah of providing a special meal at Shabbat midday.
In order to fit a third meal into the period of Shabbat, it became a custom to have a meal at the synagogue between Mincha (the afternoon prayer service) and Maariv (the evening prayer service). This meal was usually accompanied by z'mirot (songs) and Torah study. This third meal was called Seudah Sh'leesheet, the Third Meal.
One of the challenges of modern Judaism is to find ways for observing Shabbat that enhance and enrich our lives. The Central Conference of American Rabbis has published a Shabbat Manual which offers some excellent guidelines. The bottom-line purpose of any act on Shabbat, however, should be to make our sacred time different, separate from secular, weekday time.
(For some selections from the Talmud describing the rewards for keeping Shabbat and some of the consequences for not keeping Shabbat, click here.)
(Shabbat ends with a lovely, brief family ritual called Havdallah, the Separating.
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