Project of IISHJ

The Significance of Shabbat: Past and Present

Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1994 (vol. 22 no. 2, p4-6)

Shabbat is no ordinary holiday, though some people may take it for granted. The fact that it comes once a week does not make it an ordinary holiday — it is the only holiday that is weekly.

This holyday is as old as humanity. In fact, the priestly authors of the Torah traced it back to the beginning of the world. When God created the universe, the Bible tells us, he created the Shabbat. Its observance ranks with phallic circumcision as one of the two chief signs of membership in the Jewish people and in the cult of Yahveh. Unlike any other sacred rite, it is commanded specifically in the Ten Commandments. In biblical law the person who violates the Shabbat is worthy of death.

In the early moon calendar of the shepherds, the Shabbat was identified with the day of the full moon. In the septemial calendar of the farmers (based on dividing time by the sacred number seven, it fell on the seventh day of the week. The original thrust of the Shabbat was negative. It was a day on which all activity ceased. It was a sacred day when any movement was dangerous, when the safest thing to do was to stay home and do nothing. Sacred days were danger days. Supernatural power was abroad. Like radiation, it could harm as well as heal.

In time this abstinence from movement took on the positive connotation of rest. In the Ten Commandments (created in the seventh century B.C.), the abstinence from work and movement applies to freemen, slaves, and domestic animals and is viewed as a benefit. But to describe the evolving Shabbat as a day of rest is not exactly accurate. Sitting in your house without light and without the opportunity to tend to your comfort is hardly restful, especially if it is accompanied by fear of dreadful consequences for careless indulgence in any prohibited activity.

With the fall of the royal house of David, the emergence of priestly rule, and the triumph of the Yahveh cult in Jerusalem, the seventh-day Shabbat reigned supreme. It was reinforced by mythology, by the imitatio dei, the image of the divine creator of the world resting on the seventh day after the beginning of creation. It also was reinforced by the design of an elaborate calendar, in which the seventh year and the seven-times-seventh-year-plus-one became times of abstinence, too. Above all, the Shabbat was universal, attached only to the story of Yahveh and not to any event in Jewish history.

The rabbis, who followed the priests, retained the importance of the Shabbat but softened its severity. They allowed lights to be kindled before the Shabbat to relieve the darkness; enabled Jews to leave their houses by creating the legal fiction of the eruv, which treated an entire town as a private dwelling; and provided for communal activities in the synagogue, the public reading and explanation of the Torah. But the theme of prayer and study was overridden by the theme of abstinence, the long list of prohibited activities which a stern God wanted the Jews to avoid. Even the later mystic love affair with the Shabbat as “the Sabbath bride” or “the Sabbath queen” could not resolve the uncomfortable mixture of rest, family solidarity, and fear embodied in the Shabbat.

The coming of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe — and later of Eastern Europe and North America — provided a four-pronged challenge to the rabbinic Sabbath.

There was the scientific challenge. The story of divine creation was no longer believable, especially a six-day creation with a resting deity. There was the utilitarian challenge. What did all the complicated and repressive prohibitions have to do with rest? There was the intellectual challenge. Why would a universal and ethical God choose the Sabbath and phallic circumcision as his primary symbols? There was the social challenge. Jews lived in a Christian world in which Saturday was a work day and Sunday was a day of rest.

The consequence of all these challenges was the widespread abandonment of the Sabbath by Western Jews. A free and affluent environment undermined what no amount of persecution was able to destroy. While fear and guilt lingered, the lifestyle of the Jew was radically transformed. Most Western Jews worked on Saturday. And for those who did not have to work, Saturday became part of the weekend, when one could freely indulge in rest and recreation without the annoying intrusion of anxiety-producing prohibitions.

The response of the rabbis was divided. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis demanded that the traditional Sabbath be observed in the traditional way — no work, no riding, no driving, no carrying, no kindling, no gaming, no amusement. The emerging liberal rabbis tried to find a new way to preserve the Sabbath that would be consistent with the Enlightenment and the Emancipation. Some liberal rabbis invented the Friday night service, which allowed Jews who worked on Shabbat to attend a major Sabbath celebration outside of working hours. (But the Friday night service was in direct competition with the Shabbat family dinner.) Some liberals took the radical step of creating a Sunday morning service, which enabled Jews to indulge in once-a-week worship on the only day when they did not work. Still other liberals turned Friday night into family time, with gefilte fish, chicken soup, candles, and secular conversation.

However, no Reform rabbi directly confronted the fact that, for most Jews, Shabbat had ceased to be a day of Jewish rest. If there was rest, it had no Jewish content and no Jewish connection. Working Jews going to evening services and resting Jews going to the beach were not exactly what the historic rabbis and priests had imagined for Shabbat. In the vocabulary of the Reform prayer book and the Reform movement’s official pronouncements, the illusion of the day of rest was preserved, even though the small number of Reform Jews who chose to attend Shabbat worship generally worked or shopped on Saturday. Reform derives its legitimacy from the Torah, and Reform was reluctant to abandon one of the major symbols of Torah Judaism. The fact that the meaning of Shabbat was universal and not rooted in ethnicity reinforced this decision. The propaganda and the reality were miles apart.

In the face of the Enlightenment and the Emancipation and the inadequate response of Reform Judaism to the changing character of the Shabbat, what is the significance of the Sabbath to Humanistic Jews? Do we pretend that it is something it is not because we want to be connected to the legitimizing power of the Torah? Do we respect its original meaning by discarding it as no longer significant? (Many secular Jews have done exactly that. In their minds, the Shabbat is too tied up with God and worship and crazy restrictions to be redeemable. If they choose real rest and recreation, it may not be convenient to do it always on Saturday.) Or is there some creative way of preserving the Shabbat that has humanistic integrity and is faithful to its historic character?

Pretense is unethical. Rejection is premature, especially given the power of the Shabbat symbol. Creativity is in order.

A creative approach to Shabbat does not start with Torah. Shabbat existed even before the Torah was composed. A creative approach begins with the meaning of the Shabbat in the lives of liberal Jews who are drawn to it in a big or small way.

Most contemporary Jews outside of Israel are not drawn to the Shabbat as a rest day. Given the dramatic changes in work scheduling in an affluent technological culture, it is highly unlikely that a single day of rest for everybody will be very useful in the twenty-first century. Individual, rather than mass, scheduling will become increasingly popular.

Most contemporary Jews are drawn to the Shabbat because it is Jewish, because it is a frequent way to reaffirm and strengthen Jewish identity. It is the time in the week when Jews can feel most Jewish. The Shabbat did not start out with that agenda. But that is the agenda the modern Jewish experience has given it.

The Shabbat is important to us as Humanistic Jews because it is a weekly time to affirm the importance of our Jewish identity. Whether we choose to work or rest — whether we are alone, with our family, or with our Jewish community — taking time off to celebrate our Jewishness is the heart of the Shabbat day to us.

Celebrating Judaism and Jewishness can be done in many ways. We may hold a family dinner with Jewish symbols. We may participate in a Shabbat service at our community house. We may celebrate a Jewish life cycle event: birth, bar or bat mitsva, or wedding. We may read a Jewish book. We may attend a study seminar on Jewish history or Jewish culture. We may hold a discussion session with Jewish friends. No matter what Jewish activity we choose to do, we know that we are united with Jews throughout the world on this day — that we are expressing our solidarity with the Jewish people, with the Jewish past and present.

Once we recover from the necessity to pretend that the Shabbat is a rest day, once we transcend the need to preserve the irrelevant vocabulary of the Shabbat of abstinence, we become free to make it as Jewish as we want, in whatever way we want, and for however long we want. There is no joyous Jewish experience we cannot promote.

Humanistic Judaism needs the Shabbat, not for the same reasons as priests and Pharisaic rabbis did, but for Jewish reasons that accompany the evolution of the holiday. To most liberal Jews today, Shabbat is a day of Jewish identity and Jewish solidarity. Moving from that reality to creative awareness is the important task before us.



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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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