Sabbath in Later Judaism
The meaning of the Sabbath
The themes of Creation, Covenant and Rest underlie the Jewish understanding of Sabbath. God created Shabbat to give time for his whole creation to rest and he commanded his covenant people to observe the Sabbath as a sign that they were his people and that he was their God. It is a step back into Eden when we can temporarily enjoy life without toil. It is above all a family time when relatives come together to worship and rest. In the Middle Ages a tradition developed to see the Sabbath as a bride for Israel who would come each Friday night, making the Sabbath a kind of weekly wedding celebration.
Friday is very much a part of the Sabbath traditions. In observant Orthodox homes the women will spend the morning preparing for Shabbat, making sure there is enough food for the day. These will be the most special meals of the week, perhaps gefilte fish for Friday evening and cholent for Saturday lunch. I have heard that slow cookers were invented by Orthodox Jews. Challah bread and wine must be bought and any fresh foods. Sometimes the men buy these on the way home from work together with the traditional bunch of flowers for their wives. If you go to Jerusalem, it is an experience to visit Mahane Yehuda Market on Friday afternoons. You will find it heaving with people looking as if they are shopping for a siege and the traditional Sabbath foods will be very much in evidence.
Just before the Sabbath comes in, it is traditional for the woman of the house to light Sabbath candles, which are placed on the dining table. Usually two candles will be lit, though in some homes an extra candle is lit for each child. Depending on the time of year, this will frequently happen well before the meal is eaten. It is the last work to be performed and should never happen after Shabbat has begun. For this reason the woman screens her eyes from the flame with her hand before she says the traditional blessing, `Blessed are you O Lord our God King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath lights'. Once the blessing has been said, she removes her hand, says the traditional greeting `Shabbat Shalom' (Sabbath peace) and the Sabbath has begun.
While the women are home, the men go to synagogue to welcome in the Sabbath. This is literally done through a beautiful ceremony known as Kabbalat Shabbat. The door of the synagogue is opened and the congregation turns towards it. The Sabbath is welcomed as a bride, `Come my friend and meet the bride, let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath'. This is based on a very ancient tradition, but became popular through the kabbalists of Safed in Galilee.
Once home the traditional Shabbat meal can begin. Blessings are said over first the wine, `Blessed are you O Lord our God King of the universe who gives us the fruit of the vine'; and then the Shabbat bread, `Blessed are you O Lord our God King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth'. Each is passed around in turn and the bread is eaten dipped in salt. After this there are Sabbath songs and the father will bless each of his children in turn. It is traditional for him to read the portion from Proverbs 31 to his wife, `A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value'. After this there are further prayers and Sabbath songs. Once the ceremonial part is complete the meal can begin.
My first ever visit to an Orthodox synagogue for Shabbat was to one of the oldest and most famous synagogues in central London. We telephoned a few days before to make sure they would welcome non-Jewish visitors and to find the service times. We were told the service began at 8.00 am and so we duly turned up just a little beforehand. The synagogue was very empty at the beginning and it soon became apparent that very few people went to the whole service, which lasted about three hours, and most people arrived a little later. As a woman I was able to sit upstairs in a gallery and could look down on the men who led the service. The singing was beautiful. At one point everyone stood and sang the Shema: `Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Blessed be his name whose glorious kingdom is for ever and ever' (Deuteronomy 6:4).
This is the central commandment in Judaism and was a popular summary of the law at the time of Jesus. The service continued and soon the doors of the Ark - a cupboard at the front of the synagogue - were opened. Inside were a number of Torah scrolls, wrapped in beautifully embroidered covers with special ornaments on the spindles. One scroll was removed from the Ark and processed through the synagogue to the Bimah or reading desk at the centre. The scroll was opened and the portion for the week was read. When the scroll had been read (it was several chapters) it was returned to the Ark and the service gradually came towards a conclusion. Once the service had ended, we were invited to join the congregation in another room for Kiddush. We were given a glass of sweet Shabbat wine and offered a selection of small cakes.
This was an Orthodox synagogue, so the women were separate and the entire service was conducted in Hebrew. Reform and Liberal synagogues are more modern and families will sit together for the service. Some of the service will be in English and there will usually be a sermon.
The end of Shabbat
One of the most moving places to watch the end of Shabbat is at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As the Sabbath ends, long rows of young men linked arm in arm descend on the Western Wall. They are familiar with the traditional Israeli dance steps and sing Sabbath songs with beautiful harmonies.
Up in the hills in the kibbutz hotel an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah group was having a special party in a function room. Older couples drifted around in the evening sun and children played. As the sun went down a group of Orthodox men started chanting from their prayer books on the hotel terrace - all facing Jerusalem. Below in the lobby a large American explained to his children that they had to wait until two stars could be seen before Shabbat could end.
The stars came out and the dressed up `Shabbatness' melted away. Soon families began to leave, crossing the hotel lawns in the gathering dark. Now they were in shorts carrying their Shabbat clothes on hangers. There was a flurry of cars starting and even the `Egged' bus arrived. Within an hour the hotel seemed deserted and only the tourists were left.
Havdalah is a special ceremony to end Shabbat. The word means `separation' and it marks the separation between the sacred and the secular. We leave Eden behind for another week and look toward six days of work. Havdalah involves all the senses: a special cup is filled to overflowing, symbolising the abundant blessings of God; a candle made of many wicks is lit and burns fiercely (this can only be extinguished in the wine which has spilled out of the glass into a saucer beneath it); and finally a special spice box is passed around. Song of Songs ends with a reference to spices as the lovers part (8:14). Sabbath is seen as the bride of Israel and as the sweet spices are passed around we remember the fragrance of our bride through the coming week.5 Thus all the snses are involved as we bid goodbye to the Sabbath and the family is ready to start the week.