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Shabbat shalom! שבת שלום


What is the Sabbath? 

     by Sr. Magdalit Bolduc, CB

         ed. Fr. Anthony Ariniello, CB

Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the Sabbath “a castle in time”. Sabbath is a way that God gives us to sanctify time. The first mention of God sanctifying anything in the Bible is not an object, nor a person, nor a place, but rather, time. Sanctifying in Hebrew means “to set aside”, lekadesh , to separate. God sets aside the seventh day and makes it holy (Gn 2:1). 


Sabbath is pronounced Shabbat in Hebrew. The word Shabbat comes from the verb lishbot , to stop, to cease. Sanctifying the Sabbath is the third of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20). For practicing Jews, observing Sabbath is more than obeying a commandment: it is a meeting point, a place of healing, of “repairing” the soul. On Sabbath man learns to live at the level of his being and not at the level of his doing. Man frees himself of the idol that gives him the illusory feeling that he is master of his existence: the idol of action. He recognizes his worth is not measured only by what he does. 


Sabbath is a hymn of freedom: man lets God alone be Creator, and accepts his stature as creature, meekly but honorably. One wants to respect Sabbath like a jewel, a treasure, watching over it, making it last... Sabbath gives a taste of the messianic times. Heschel, in his book Shabbat , says that Judaism has as its first vocation the sanctifying of time. He calls the Jews the ‘builders of time’. 


Jews do not work on Sabbath. The Sabbath thus limits man. Man always wants to build and gain space; the Sabbath is a limitation of Man in his eagerness to conquer. It leads man to focus on God, the only true Creator.  The Sabbath is central for the people of Israel. Their entire life revolves around the sanctification of this seventh day, and other holidays follow the pattern of the Sabbath. During these 24 hours, they will deny themselves any act associated with Creation and with the building of the Temple. 


Those “creative acts” are defined by the rabbis with a special procedure that we will not explain here, but that gives birth to a customary, precise, and complex behavior. Among other things, they will not drive, nor use electricity of any kind, nor answer the phone, nor light up a flame, etc. The goal is to glorify God and put Him at the center of life. 


Sabbath in a Jewish Family 


On Friday night, at the end of the afternoon, the Sabbath candles are blessed by the mother of every family. It is commonly said that at that point: the Sabbath “enters “. The hour is precise, defined by the first star in the sky at dusk. In Israel a siren whistles to indicate the beginning of the sacred time. The whistle blows and gradually everything ceases. In the religious neighborhoods, men come back from the ritual bath, the mikve, and all of them head to the synagogue. 


At the synagogue, in addition to the ordinary prayer office, they pray a short office, special for Sabbath, named Kabbalat Shabbat , meaning literally: “The welcoming of the Sabbath.” This day of rest consecrated to God is punctuated by three festive meals, the two first meals being introduced by a Kiddush - a “sanctification” of the wine. The first meal is on Friday night, coming back from the synagogue. The angels are invited to the Kiddush with a song, a hymn is sung, “to the virtuous woman” (Pr 31: 10-31) and the blessing of the wine (Kiddush) follows. Hands are washed in silence before touching the bread. 


Then, as for every ordinary meal, the bread is blessed. It is the blessing of the wine, rather than that of the bread that is proper to the Sabbath, which marks the entrance into sacred time. For Sabbath the bread is nicely braided; it is called hallah. There are at least two hallot (plural) to recall the double portion of manna given in the desert by divine Providence on the sixth day, to protect the Hebrews from violating the Sabbath on the seventh day (Ex 16:5). The bread is covered with a cloth to respect the Scriptures, where the wheat is mentioned before the wine, (Dt 8:8). 


The Jewish home becomes a true sanctuary. The table becomes the altar of sacrifice; the candles represent the Temple’s menorah ; the wine, the wine of the offerings; the bread, the oblation loaves. Once the h allah is blessed, the family starts to eat. The meal is accompanied by songs and is full of joy. The father asks questions about the portion of the Torah reading (parasha) that the children have studied at school during the week and that will be read at the synagogue in the morning


Quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath:


“He who desires to enter in the holiness of the day (of Shabbat) must free himself of all the noise of profane tasks; he must get away from the hurly- burly of the discordant days, of the agitation and fury of earning, of this abusive trust towards one-self. One discharges himself of the yoke of burden and labor. One must learn and understand that the world was created and will survive without man mingling in it.” 


“For six days, we battle with the world, pulling out of the earth its riches but on Shabbat, we must take care of the seed of eternity entrusted to our soul. Our hands are for the world, but our soul belongs to Someone else. During six days, we work to dominate the world, the seventh day we labor in dominating the self.” 


The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.


To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.


The Sabbath, Sunday and the Eighth Day 


The Christian Sunday is not Sabbath. It is the day of Resurrection, the day of life, the “first day of the week”. The Catechism talks about the seventh and eighth day and it recalls that “Creation was fashioned with a view to the sabbath and therefore for the worship and adoration of God”, CCC n° 347), and that “God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth” (CCC n° 314).


A new day has dawned for us: the day of Christ's Resurrection. The seventh day completes the first creation. The eighth day begins the new creation. Thus, the work of creation culminates in the greater work of redemption. "The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation" (CCC n° 349).


Saturday is the image of our world, awaiting the final redemption. It was the link between Friday and Sunday. Jews and Christians have a common tension: the Jews wait for the coming of the Messiah especially on Sabbath day. Christians, pray for his return especially at Sunday Mass ( “...until you come again”). And it is said in both respective traditions that the prayer of just men can hasten time (2 Pt 3:12). During Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) the two peoples can plead for the final redemption to come. What power in prayer there can be if both people are united! 


“A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity”. -Karl Barth

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