Shabbat is a central facet of Jewish life and identity, a focus of energy and attention (to varying degrees, depending on one’s level of observance) and an indicator of the Jewish framework we choose. It is no less complex for more traditional Jews than it is for us, and indeed, the biblical commandments around Shabbat observance required clarification and generated controversy from the very beginnings of rabbinic Judaism and still do to this day. Apart from the oft-repeated injunction to “do no work” on Shabbat (in Exodus 20:10, 35:2, and Deuteronomy 5:14, among others), the only other specifics mentioned are a few prohibitions such as those against kindling a fire, gathering wood, and plowing. The injunction to “do no work” must have been clear enough to our biblical ancestors, but after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the biblical rules left many questions that needed to be answered in order to create authoritative Jewish life in a world without the sacred centre of the Temple. The early rabbis disliked grey areas. They sought clarification in the biblical text itself, believing that everything could be found there if you knew how to look for it. In the process, they created the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, which serves as the basis of modern Jewish life; Shabbat observance was a central focus of their eﬀorts.
They saw that the biblical text (in Exodus) sets forth all the various labours that needed to be done to create the tabernacle that travelled with the Israelites in their wandering. These labours became the basis for the work that would be prohibited to be done on Shabbat: 39 basic categories of labour. These activities, and any that were similar or related to them, formed the basis of future Shabbat restrictions. Their choices thus focused Shabbat prohibitions on activities involving creating and destroying, and they added to this list other activities not specifically banned, in their view, but nevertheless inappropriate to the Sabbath. The rabbis also turned the commandments to “keep” and “remember” Shabbat into liturgy, creating the Shabbat services we know today.
Shabbat observance changed in response to the actual living situations of Jews in the lands of our dispersion. Other traditions rose which made significant additions to Shabbat, including the entire “Kabbalat Shabbat” service on Friday night, which came out of the mystical traditions of Safed and the emergence of Kabbalah.
As complicated as Shabbat observance is for the more traditional communities, how much the more so it is for us as progressive Jews. Traditional Shabbat is all about observance, family and community. What kinds of observance make sense for modern Jews? Many of us must work, or choose to do so, on Saturdays, so a traditional version of “rest” is not possible or desirable for us. Shabbat services are (at best) meaningful and lovely, but it isn’t always possible to attend. The familial and community aspects of Shabbat are compelling, but many of us live on our own or with partners who have little interest in religious observance. Making Shabbat for ourselves is hard to do. Some progressive Jews are Shabbat observant in their homes, refraining from doing things that disturb the atmosphere of Shabbat, like using electronics and so forth. Some focus on a Shabbat dinner with its rituals, inviting others to share it with them. Some spend Shabbat reading books and articles on Jewish subjects, making it an opportunity for study and reflection in areas that they don’t always make time for during the week. And of course, whenever we have Shabbat activities at NLJC, I encourage you to come; those activities can be the centre of meaningful Shabbat experience. I’d be interested to hear the ways in which you make Shabbat special for yourselves and your families.