The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Shabbat, or Shabbos (Ashkenazic pronunciation) (שבת shabbāṯ, rest), is a day of rest that is observed once a week, from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday, by many Jewish people, with varying degrees of involvement in Judaism.



The Hebrew word Shabbat comes from the Hebrew verb shabat, which literally means "to cease". Although Shabbat or its anglicized version Sabbath is almost universally translated as "rest" or a "period of rest", a more literal translation would be "ceasing", with the implication of "ceasing from work". Thus, Shabbat is the day of ceasing from work; while resting is implied, it is not a necessary connotation of the word itself.

Incidentally, this clarifies the often-asked theological question of why God needed to "rest" on the seventh day of Creation, as related in the Genesis account. When it is understood that God "ceased" from his labor rather than "rested" from his labour, the usage is more consistent with the Biblical view of an omnipotent God who does not need "rest." Notwithstanding this clarification, this article will follow the far more common translation of Shabbat as "rest."

Shabbat is the basis of the English words "Sabbath" and "sabbatical".

A common linguistic confusion leads many to believe that the word means "seventh day." Though the root for seven, or sheva, is similar in sound, it is spelled differently.

Shabbat in other religions

Sabbaths are also observed in other religions: the weekly day of rest of Christianity is on Sunday. Islam has a day of public prayer (the concept of "rest" is traditionally not incorporated, but is catching on nowadays) on Friday, that is derived from the practice of having market day on Friday in preparation for the Jewish Shabbat.


Observance of Shabbat is mentioned a number of times in the Torah, most notably as the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Other instances are Exodus 31:12-17 and 35:2-3, Leviticus 19:3 and 30, 23:3 and 28:9-10 (the sacrifices). It is referred to directly by the prophets Isaiah (56:4,6) and Ezekiel (ch. 20, 22, 23) and Nehemiah 9:14, apart from numerous other allusions in the Bible.

Jewish law defines one day ending at nightfall, which is when the next day then begins. Thus, Shabbat begins at sundown Friday night and ends at nightfall Saturday night (traditionally, after three stars can be seen on the sky). The added time between sunset and nightfall on Saturday night owes to the ambiguous nature of that part of the day according to Jewish law.

On occasions the word Shabbat can refer to the law of Shemittah or to the holidays, dependent on the context.

Status as a holy day

While the Sabbath is not considered a holiday by many other cultures and religions, Judaism accords Shabbat the status of a joyous holy day. In many ways, halakha (Jewish law) gives Shabbat the status of being the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar.

  • It is the first holy day mentioned in the Bible, and God was the first one to observe it.
  • The liturgy treats the Sabbath as a bride and queen, or, as we see in the Mishneh Torah, a king.
  • The Torah reading for the Sabbath has more aliyot (sections of the Torah sung aloud) than does Yom Kippur, which in turn contains the most of any regular Jewish holy day.
  • There is a tradition that the Messiah will come if every Jew observes the Shabbat twice in a row (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 118).
  • The Biblical penalty (capital punishment) for violating Shabbat is greater than that for violating any other holiday.


The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) describe Shabbat as having two purposes:

  • A commemoration of the Israelites' redemption from slavery in Egypt;
  • A commemoration of God's creations of the Universe; on the seventh day God rested from his work.

Mandatory activities

According to traditional interpretations of the Bible, Jews are commanded by God to keep and remember the Shabbat, and these two actions are symbolised by lighting two candles.

Although most Shabbat laws are restrictive (see below), the fourth commandment in Exodus is taken by the Talmud to allude to the positive aspects of the Shabbat. These include:

  • Recitation of Kiddush over a cup of wine in the evening and the morning, emphasizing the holiness of the day (see List of Hebrew Prayers);
  • Three joyful meals that minimally include bread (the traditional challah loaves) and meat (according to most traditional views).
  • Torah study (see below);
  • Recitation of Havdalah at the conclusion on Saturday night (over a cup of wine, fragrant spices and a candle).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is quoted to have said that decreased emphasis on the "positive" aspects of Shabbat has been a factor in increased assimilation in the generations after WWII (Derash Moshe, "Balak").

Prohibited activities

See also 39 categories of activity

Jewish law prohibits Jewish people from doing any form of melachah ("work", plural "melachot") on Shabbat. Melachah does not closely correspond to the English definition of the term "work", nor does it correspond to the definition of the term as used in physics. Rather, it refers to the 39 categories of activity that the Talmud prohibits Jews from engaging in on Shabbat; they are legally derived (based on juxtaposition of corresponding Biblical passages) from the kinds of work that were necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. Many religious scholars have pointed out that these labours have something in common -- they prohibit any activity that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over one's environment.

The 39 activities are (Mishnah tractate Shabbat 7:2):

  1. Sowing;
  2. Plowing;
  3. Reaping;
  4. Binding sheaves;
  5. Threshing;
  6. Winnowing;
  7. Selecting;
  8. Grinding;
  9. Sifting;
  10. Kneading;
  11. Baking;
  12. Shearing wool;
  13. Washing wool;
  14. Beating wool;
  15. Dyeing wool;
  16. Spinning;
  17. Weaving;
  18. Making two loops;
  19. Weaving two threads;
  20. Separating two threads;
  21. Tying;
  22. Untying;
  23. Sewing stitches;
  24. Tearing;
  25. Trapping;
  26. Slaughtering;
  27. Flaying;
  28. Salting meat;
  29. Curing hide;
  30. Scraping hide;
  31. Cutting hide up;
  32. Writing two or more letters;
  33. Erasing two or more letters;
  34. Building;
  35. Tearing something down;
  36. Extinguishing a fire;
  37. Kindling a fire;
  38. Putting the finishing touch on an object;
  39. Transporting an object between a private domain and the public domain, or within the public domain;

Each melachah has derived prohibitions of various kinds. There are, therefore, many more forbidden activities on the Shabbat; all are traced back to one of the 39 above principal melachot. Direct derivatives (toledoth) have the same legal severity as the original melachah (although there are marginal differences); examples are the related activities of cooking, baking, roasting and poaching, all of which fall under "baking". Indirect derivatives instituted by the rabbinic Sages are termed shevuth and are much less severe in legal terms (e.g. they were not punished with stoning when this punishment was still in force).

Given the above, the 39 melachot are not so much activities as categories of activity. For example, while "winnowing" usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, it refers in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish (gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem). Another example is the prohibition (in Orthodox halacha) on turning electricity on or off, which is derived from "building" and "tearing something down" (the Hebrew word that is used can be interpreted as "destroying for the purpose of rebuilding"). The solution commonly used involves pre-set timers.

In the event that a human life is in danger (pikuach nefesh), a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Shabbat law which stands in the way of saving that life. The derived laws of shevuth are violated under much less stringent circumstances, e.g. a patient who is ill but not critically so.

Various other legal principles closely delineate which activity constitutes desecration of the Shabbat. Examples of these include the principle of shinui (change or deviation) - a severe violation becomes a non-severe one if the prohibited act was performed in a way that would be considered abnormal on a weekday. Examples include writing with one's non-dominant hand (according to many authorities). This legal principle, however, is post-facto (bedi avad) and is not normally relied upon except in specific circumstances.

Reform Judaism, generally speaking, says that while one should study those prohibitions, as one would study Jewish law, it is up to the individual Jew to determine whether to follow those prohibitions on Shabbat or not. For example, some Jews might find writing (or some other malachah, or derivative of such a melachah) for leisure purposes to be an enjoyable activity that enhances Shabbat and its holiness, and therefore encourage such practices. More traditional Jews, naturally, would disagree on this issue.


Shabbat is a day of celebration as well as one of prayer. Three festive meals are eaten each Shabbat: on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and early Saturday evening before the conclusion of the Shabbat. All Jews are encouraged to attend services at a synagogue during Shabbat, even if they would not normally do so on weekdays.

With the exception of Yom Kippur, days of public fasting are postponed or advanced for a day if they coincide with Shabbat, and mourners sitting Shivah conduct themselves normally for the duration of the day and are indeed forbidden to express public signs of mourning.

Permitted activities

The following activities are encouraged on Shabbat:

  • Visiting family and friends (within walking distance, given problems with transport);
  • Spending Shabbat together with one's own immediate family;
  • Synagogue attendance;
  • Hosting family and friends to sleep over for Shabbat (hachnasat orchim, hospitality) or at least for one of the festive meals;
  • Singing folk songs, zmirot (pizmonim), etc. (commonly done during or after the meals);
  • Reading, studying and discussing Torah and commentary, Mishnah and Talmud, halakha and responsa and Midrash.
  • According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), lovemaking between husband and wife is encouraged.
  • According to Reform rabbis, anything that enhances the enjoyability of Shabbat as a special and spiritual day is to be encouraged.[1]

The following activities are in accord with Jewish law and tradition but are not mandated:

  • Playing board games
  • Reading modern Jewish fiction (a number of rabbinic authorities discourage the reading of novels and newspapers; inspirational stories might fall outside this opinion);
  • Taking a nature walk or hike;
  • Some, mainly Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, authorities permit spending time with one's pets.

"Sabbath Elevators"

It is occasionally possible to perform seemingly forbidden acts by modifying the relevant technology to such an extent that no actually law is violated. An important example is the "Sabbath Elevator". In this mode, an elevator will stop automatically at every floor, allowing people to step on and off without having to press any buttons, which would be to work. Regenerative braking is also disabled if it is normally used, shunting energy collected from downward travel, and thus the gravitational potential energy of passengers, into a resistor network. This prevents violation of the Sabbath prohibition against doing useful work. Many authorities consider the use of such elevators by those who are otherwise capable as a breaking of the Sabbath, with such workarounds being for the benefit of the frail and handicapped and not being in the spirit of the day.

See also

External links

Recommended reading

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04