What is the Sabbath or Shabbat?

Let’s start with the basics: what is Shabbat? And what is “Shabbat Shalom?” Shabbat or the Sabbath, is derived from the Hebrew word shevet, meaning “to dwell,” and also relates to sheva, the number seven.

The simplest meaning of shalom is peace, or “the absence of war.” Its context and origins communicate an inner completeness and wholeness. But there is actually a lot more to it. To dive into shalom’s historical meaning, click the link earlier in this paragraph.

What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

When you combine these two words and overlay their meanings, the image of “Shabbat Shalom” begins to emerge: May you dwell in peace/ completeness/ wholeness on the seventh day.

In other words, as you take time to rest and honor the Lord, I pray you experience true peace and become whole again. Shabbat is an invitation to come and worship, in a beautiful exchange that revives and strengthens our souls.

A Weekly Rhythm 

Many of us grew up in households where Saturday is still a semi work day. You wake up early to clean the house, do laundry and cut the lawn. Then, Sunday morning was for church, afternoon was for naps, and evenings were for family gatherings.

It seems like a Godly-enough pattern of living. However, this system doesn’t actually provide much of a feeling of rest! There is a sense of play and a break from routine, but it does not give much room to recuperate… as if we needed a Sabbath. 

Often, our default belief is that the Sabbath was a rigid religious requirement and by grace we were set free from it. That understanding is far more limited than Jesus.’ Instead of recognizing God’s love in our lives on this day, we fall into obligation.

However, Shabbat is a declaration of trust which we demonstrate with our time. God designed it to remind us of our dependence on Him and not on our own ability to provide. No more working, earning, or striving. On this day, we get to rest in His love. Clocked out, mask off.

Israel Entering the Sabbath

In Israel, the rush and noise that filled six days of the week are hushed by the stillness of Shabbat (the Sabbath). Which begins on Friday at sundown and concludes at sundown on Saturday.

On Friday evening at sundown in Jerusalem a horn echoes for two minutes announcing the arrival of Shabbat. There is nothing like it in the world! You literally can feel a collective sigh go throughout the town as it grinds to a halt. 

As people get in their last minute shopping they wish each other the simple yet profound: “Shabbat Shalom!”

Public transportation stops, cars find their parking spots, and families find their homes. Many men rush to their homes with a bouquet for their wife or mother. The last meal of the week has been set: Shabbat Dinner. Everyone is preparing to rest.

Very few things are open the next day; many people refrain from driving; even public transportation stops in honor of God’s Shabbat. For the most part, the whole country rests. It is a day of peace and quiet.

Shabbat Shalom – What Does God Think About That?

Let’s look into the origins of this God-ordained “vacation day.” Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is one of the first things we ever learn about God’s character. Immediately after creating Man in His image, He rested.

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

At the outset of history, the Lord rested from His work, setting the day apart and calling it holy. That first day of rest established a basic truth about God: He desires dedicated rest.

The actual institution of the Sabbath when God’s people were commanded to set it apart as a holy day is nestled among the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:8-11). Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord gave further instructions on how to observe it lawfully.

Likewise, various Jewish traditions have evolved over millennia which have become beloved staples. Just like the Friday night Shabbat dinner mentioned above. However, the goal or essence of Shabbat remains the same. It is to be a day that is set apart for rest and for fellowship with Him.

Sabbath in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word Shabbat (Sabbath in English) is a gift of rest, first mentioned in the story of creation. How Shabbat is celebrated today certainly looks a lot different than the first sabbath! After God created the world in six days, Genesis 2:3 says:

“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.”

Did you catch that word rested? This word in the Hebrew is the first occurrence of the word Shabbat in the Scriptures. This word simply means to cease from doing, to desist from labor or to rest. At the dawn of creation, God instituted a rhythm of rest in the order of time. He knew that mankind would need the Sabbath for their health and well-being.

God valued this concept of rest so much that He even included it in the Ten Commandments. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)

Sabbath in the New Testament

There are Christians who would say that under the New Covenant there is no longer any requirement to keep the Sabbath. “We are no longer under law but under grace,” many would say. 

But let’s try to flip this approach. Instead of seeing the Sabbath as a “requirement”, consider it… a reward. What if it was not a legal restriction, but an element of God’s grace?

Yeshua Himself observed the Sabbath. However, He was not shy to correct those who had turned Shabbat into a complicated minefield of rules and regulations (Luke 4:16, Mark 2:23-28). He was determined to refocus it once again on the true source of rest and celebration: GOD HIMSELF!

Yeshua invited all men to come to Him to find rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Shabbat is a God-given weekly reminder that we need rest, and that our rest is found in Him. Even more profoundly, it is a compelling reminder that our entire lives revolve around Him!

Shabbat means Sabbath or Rest

How Shabbat is Celebrated through Customs

In the Hebrew calendar, a day runs from one sunset to the next, so the Sabbath begins already on Friday evening. This definition and measure of time comes from the Biblical description of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 23:32. The verse says the holiday lasted “from evening to evening”. 

Jewish families have established wonderful traditions to enter Shabbat.

They are kept to remember the Creator and delight in Him (Isaiah 58:13). But before we share with you a simplified summary of Shabbat traditions, to implement at home, let’s take a quick look what the New Testament says about Shabbat. 

Jesus and the Day of Rest

You may recall the story of Jesus discussing the topic of the Sabbath with His disciples. In Mark 2 when His disciples ask whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus responds:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

The Sabbath was never meant to be something to strive toward. Rather, from the beginning of time the Sabbath was meant to bring freedom. God Himself rested on the seventh day after the work of His creation. He designed the Sabbath to overflow with joy, rest, and refilling.

Because the Sabbath is so valued in the Scriptures, it is a sacred practice revered by Jews to this day. We gathered for you an explanation of the Jewish traditions that usher in the reverence of Shabbat. The definitive origins of these practices are debated. Jewish teachers may have defined them after the return from Babylonian exile. Whatever the case may be, they point to God and remind us of His ordinances.

Shabbat Blessing #1: Lighting the Candles

The first ceremonious element of the night is lighting of the candles. It is done right before the sunset, so not necessarily at mealtime.

In the traditional Shabbat observance, it is one of the few elements that is performed by a woman, including pronouncing the traditional blessing: Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the sabbath candles.

However, believers would argue that in the Bible God never specifically commands to light candles on Shabbat. Thus, in many homes the last part of the prayer is changed, while also mentioning the light of Yeshua (Jesus). So the blessing goes as follows: 

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified us with His commandments, commanded us to be a light to the nations, and who gave us Yeshua, the Light of the world.

Celebrating Shabbat with Songs and Blessings

The Sabbath is set apart from other days of the week by involving no work, no rush, and no distractions. God established this very first holy day not to restrict us, but to bless us. It is to our health and spiritual wellbeing.

That is why the Sabbath is considered to be a very joyous occasion and Jewish families fill their homes with songs. A hymn that is commonly sang around the Shabbat table is Eshet Chail, which is Hebrew for “Woman of Valor”. Sang usually by the head of the household, it is a tribute to the virtuous woman described in the 31 chapter of Proverbs. The husband sings it over his wife.

We follow the song with blessings over the sons, to be like Efraim and Menashe. Blessings over the daughters are to become like Sara, Rebekah, Rachel and Lea. Often the father recites the Priestly Blessing over them, which is recorded in Numbers 6:24-26:

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Shabbat Readings

As mentioned in the beginning, the Shabbat is a reminder of our – as mankind – very first day on earth. We spent it with our God and Creator. For this reason, as Shabbat begins, it is customary to open Scripture on the story of creation. Of course, we give the main focus to the day of Sabbath itself, so we read the following passage:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 1:31-2:3)

Shabbat Blessing #2: Prayer Over the Wine

At the dinner table, the head of the family recites two blessings over food. They are for the wine and for the bread (in that order). These two key elements remind the Jewish people of God’s salvation and provision for centuries. 

The head of the household lifts up a cup of wine and recites:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Shabbat Blessing #3: Prayer over the Bread

After the blessing of the wine, it is time for the blessing over the bread. Traditionally, there are two loaves of challah bread. They symbolize the double portion of manna provided to the children of Israel in the wilderness for the Sabbath.

The head of the household lifts the two bread loaves and recites:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Blessing after the Meal

This is probably a new concept for many. In Christian homes, it is common to pray before the meal, but not after. But that is not the only difference between Jewish and Christian homes.

In a Jewish home, you will never hear anyone bless the food – you bless God, to show gratitude for His provision.

The blessing after the meal is colloquially called ‘benching’, from the Yiddish term bentshen – to bless. It is rather long, in its traditional form, and consists of four parts. That is, to give thanks for the food, for the land of Israel, for Jerusalem, and for God’s goodness. The origin of this tradition is also biblical:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. (Deut 8:10)

How is Shabbat celebrated for followers of Jesus?

Sometimes believers aren’t sure if they should be celebrating shabbat or not. As a matter of fact, they can! We know that God gave the Sabbath to the people of Israel as a commandment. Additionally, thanks to prophet Isaiah, we know that the Lord honors foreigners who observe the Sabbath.

In reward, He gives them a new name and promises them joy in His house of prayer (Isaiah 56:3-8). God delights in those who hold fast to His covenant and keep the Sabbath. His Holy Word makes it very clear that these words apply to both Jews and Gentiles. 

Do you recall the “I am” statements made by Jesus in the gospel of John? He said he was the bread of life (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51), as well as the light of the world (John 8:12). Jesus also said that He was the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) and the true vine (John 15:1, 5).

Take a look at these “I am” statements. Then, read again the three Shabbat prayers – over the candles, the wine, and the bread. Jesus brings fulfillment to these prayers!

How is Shabbat celebrated with Jesus?

He is the light of the world so that we don’t have to walk in darkness. He is the true vine and we are the branches. Our lives are centered around Him and the gift of salvation through His shed blood on the cross. He is our provision and the bread of life that came down from heaven. Those who come to Him will never hunger again.

And there is one final element to the significance of Shabbat for believers in Jesus.

Hebrews 4:9 says, “There remains a rest for the people of God.” In the Greek, the word for rest in this verse is sabbatismos. It is the only occurrence of this word in the entire New Testament. Seemingly, the writer of Hebrews wanted to emphasize the importance of not just rest for the people of God, but a Sabbath rest! It is a sacred time, finding its apex in God alone.

The Sabbath is more than just a day of rest following a week of work. It is more than a casual observance. It is a rhythm that ultimately points to our ultimate satisfaction and true rest in Jesus alone.

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