Two Faces of Shabbat

5 Jun
English: Shabbat Candles Deutsch: Schabbatkerzen

Shabbat candles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the course of this academic year, I have been learning Hilchot Shabbat. Recently, I began taking a smicha test on that material. The exam is take-home, which might lead some to make suggestions about its simplicity, or question the validity of an open-book exam for such an important topic. I would like to deal with neither of those challenges now, except to say that the test is quite difficult, requiring considerable probing of the depths of legal details. In my answering of the multi-faceted test questions, I have come to think about Shabbat, and said details, in a different way, and asking the following: do the prohibitions make Shabbat? or Because it is Shabbat, certain activities are prohibited?

Prohibitions make Shabbat. After pouring over volumes of text that are filled with minute details, often prohibitions, it seemed clear that Shabbat is created by way of forbidding a litany of activities, down to the way we tear (or not) toilet paper and make tea. We define the day by prohibiting activities that prevent the day from passing like all the rest. Imagine the usual process for making a cup of tea, now imagine having to significantly alter the process because of prohibited ways of cooking. Yes, it can be burdensome and intimidating, especially for a novice, but it creates the atmosphere of a different kind of day, one where individuals must rethink basic tasks in a way that sanctifies the day. Even meals are different. They are festive, sanctified with wine, and usually involves a gathering of friends or family, and to allow the feeling of uniqueness to extend beyond the meals, additional prohibitions exist. For me, it is hard to imagine Shabbat as Shabbat when the day’s activities are ‘normal,’ where cell phones, televisions, and the internet are readily at hand. So in that sense, yes. The prohibitions give birth to an atmosphere that protects the sanctity of the day.

Speaking of atmosphere, it leads me to the other side of the equation. It assumes the existence of a day called Shabbat, that is distinct in its nature from the balance of the week. It is knowing that every seventh day will be somehow distinct from the preceding six. But then we have to set upon the job of making that day different, how is this done? Through prohibited activities. We effectively erect fences that prevent us from crossing into areas that would damage the atmosphere of the day, by doing so we stay away from what the halakhists call “the 39 melachot.” These so called fences are placed around tasks that are not “Shabbosdik,” or not in keeping with maintaining the holiness of Shabbat. Thus because there is a day called Shabbat, we forbid activities that create tension with the underlying assumption of Shabbat itself.

The ability think about Shabbat in both directions has proved constructive for me. It has cemented my understanding of why I must make my tea differently on Shabbat as well as why I should not simply set a timer for my television (if I owned one), although it might be technically within the letter of the law. So as much as halakha creates Shabbat by way of preventing a litany of daily tasks, the assumed existence of a day of rest is manifested by ceasing from creative and quasi-creative activities. It is with these theories that I have found the lenient and stringent laws more compelling, as well as understanding their necessity in creating a mechanism for a halkically observant Shabbat.

Happy Shabbating, I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

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One Response to “Two Faces of Shabbat”

  1. Andrea 14 FriUTC2013-06-07T16:30:38+00:00UTC06bUTCFri, 07 Jun 2013 16:30:38 +0000, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    But the real question is, can I knock?

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