Image: A woman covers her eyes as she recites the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles. Photo thanks to Dawn Kepler, who retains all rights.
Some will tell you it’s Passover. In America, that’s the most observed Jewish holiday.
Some will tell you it’s Yom Kippur because that’s what they have heard.
Some will tell you Chanukah, because that’s the only Jewish holiday they know.
Some will tell you it’s the High Holy Days, because — well, “High Holy,” right?
The BIGGEST Jewish holiday is…. Shabbat!
What? you might say. “It comes once a week! How can it be the biggest Jewish holiday?”
But it says so, right in the Kiddush* for Shabbat Evening:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe
who finding favor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.
In love and favor, You made the holy Shabbat our heritage
as a reminder of the work of Creation.
As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
You chose us and set us apart from the peoples.
In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.
“As first among our sacred days” — and so it is.
Shabbat is so important that it is never cancelled by another holiday. Other days, like Yom Kippur, may happen on Shabbat, but they never happen instead of Shabbat.
The Kiddush also tells us why Shabbat is so important. It is a memorial of the Creation and a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.
The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work which God had been doing, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work which God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation which God had done.
–Genesis 2: 1-3.
At the end of the work of Creation, God rested. Then, at Sinai, God gave our people a commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days, Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai has blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
– Exodus 20:8-11
and the commandment is repeated, with different wording and a different rationale, in Deuteronomy:
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Adonai your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox of your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
– Deuteronomy 5: 12-15
So there, in the two accounts of the 10 Commandments, we have the rationale of Creation and that of the Exodus, both of which are mentioned in the Kiddush blessing. That’s another reason I can say with confidence that Shabbat is the BIGGEST Jewish holiday: it’s the only one mentioned in the 10 Commandments!
Jews disagree about the best way to keep Shabbat. Some Jews head to synagogue, some to the seashore. Some make sure to touch base with loved ones. Others make sure not to touch a cell phone. How you choose to observe this holiday (holy day) is up to you.
More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.
–Ahad Ha’Am (Asher Ginsberg)
*”Kiddush” is a special blessing for a holiday – think of it as a toast. We hold up our glasses of wine or juice and we say or sing the kiddush. There is a kiddush for every major holiday, and this is the kiddush for Shabbat.