Shabbat: A Time to Check In

Image: Two children’s hands linked by their little fingers. One has chipped nail polish. (cherylholt/pixabay)

One of Judaism’s profoundest lessons is the importance of human relationship. Our Tanakh begins with the story of a lonely God, who arranges a world full of plants and animals and human beings. Then God realizes that “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and God creates an ezer, a companion to ease the human’s loneliness.  (Ezer shares a root with the verb la’azor, meaning “to help, assist, succor.”)

Adam and Eve ate together from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they were expelled from the Garden together. One of their children murdered his brother, but their names were linked forever: Cain and Abel.

The stories in the Bible are stories about relationships: Noah and God, Abram and God, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Rachel and Leah were the siblings who didn’t kill each other, although I have wondered if it ever crossed their minds. Was Jacob ever in a genuine relationship with anyone, or did he stand by and play them off, one against the other, first his wives and then his children?

Not all relationships are love relationships. Nathan rebuked David. Ezra rebuked the remnant of Israel. Ruth loved her mother-in-law but it is less clear that Naomi loved her back. Bezalel and Oholiab were partner-builders in Exodus 31; I wish we knew more about them.

Martin Buber famously taught us that moments of genuine connection between human beings (“I/Thou relationships”) are a mirror of the relationship between the human being and God.  We human beings have a profound need for the Other, someone not ourselves.

It is tragic that we also have a profound fear of the Other. The person who is not me can be a friend or an enemy: an ezer or a Cain. The only way to find out is to take a risk, and to keep taking the risk of relationship. Those who will not take a risk, risk being alone.

This Shabbat, let us take stock of our relationships. How long has it been since my last I/Thou moment? How long since I took the risk of really listening to someone else?

Shabbat and Capital Punishment

Image: A Judge’s Gavel. (Public Domain)

Parashat Vayahkel-Pekudei begins with an alarming statement:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. – Exodus 35:1-3

After this bombshell, Moses continues to tell the Israelites the directions for building the Tabernacle without saying anything more about Shabbat or capital crimes. What?!

Commenters including Sarna point out that this brief mention of the regulations of Shabbat echoes a longer passage about Shabbat in Exodus 31: 12-18. Both passages about the Sabbath stand paired with passages about the building of the Tabernacle.  The text is making two points here:

  1. Keeping Shabbat is very important, more important than any work, even such work as the building of a sanctuary for God.
  2. Jews have two holy sanctuaries: one in space and one in time. Our sanctuary in space was the Temple in Jerusalem. Our sanctuary in time is Shabbat. This juxtaposition in Torah is the source for the “cathedral in time” in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 

As for the death penalty:

We have an account in Torah of a man who was executed for violating the Sabbath. In his case:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Eternal said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the Eternal had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:32-36

Notice that this is much later – in Numbers! – and yet “it had not been specified what should be done to him.” Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that they were waiting to see precisely what sort of death penalty was required, since there were four possibilities. Only when Moses consults with God do they learn that the punishment is stoning. Whatever is going on here, Moses and the Israelites gave this matter great seriousness, wanting direct confirmation from God before proceeding.

Many centuries later, the rabbis would write down their understanding of the rules they had received from God for capital punishment. They had strict requirements for it, without which the sentence could not be carried out:

  1. There must be 2 eye witnesses to the crime who were willing to testify.
  2. Those witnesses must be willing to participate in the execution.
  3. Those witnesses must have warned the accused before the crime that he was about to commit a capital crime.
  4. Valid witnesses must be adult Jewish males not related to the defendant or one another.
  5. The court had to consist of 23 learned rabbis.
  6. Each witness must be examined separately. If there were any discrepancies in their testimony, no matter how minor, the court must acquit.

And then in Sanhedrin 17a, we get yet another requirement:

Rav Kahana says: In a Sanhedrin where all the judges saw fit to convict the defendant in a case of capital law, they acquit him. The Gemara asks: What is the reasoning for this halakha? It is since it is learned as a tradition that suspension of the trial overnight is necessary in order to create a possibility of acquittal.

The rabbis seemed to feel that if the court was unanimous, then there was so much emotion running high that it was inappropriate to go forward with a conviction; best to sleep on it. The rabbis were worried that a unanimous court had something wrong with it – vengeance, perhaps?

At any rate, we learn from all of this that in our tradition, while the Written Torah appears to speak lightly of execution, in fact the Oral Torah – the larger context of tradition –  is extremely cautious about capital punishment, so cautious that it is hard to see how they ever managed to convict anyone of a capital crime.  (It is also worth noting that after the Romans took control of Judea in 63 BCE, the Sanhedrin no longer had the power to carry out such a verdict. The whole discussion was theoretical.)

At any rate, don’t panic at the beginning of Exodus 35. While the peshat [simple meaning of the verse appears to say that people should be executed for violating the Sabbath, our tradition does not advocate capital punishment.

That said, there are parts of the soul that come to life when we keep Shabbat, and that cannot survive without it:

More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. – Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet, philosopher, 1856-1927)






Opening the Gates to Shabbat

Image: Iron gates opening to a stone path. (Tama66/Pixabay)

If you have ever been to a Shabbat dinner, or to a Reform service, you will recognize the prayer Kiddush Leyl Shabbat (Kiddush for Shabbat Evening) by the tune, as in this YouTube video by Rabbi Justin Kerber:

Kiddush Leyl Shabbat is a blessing. It begins with the regular blessing over wine and then moves on to bless Shabbat specifically. I like to think of it as a “toast to Shabbat” that I make every Friday evening.

Recently our Introduction to Jewish Experience class did a text study on the words, because these ancient words can open doors for exploring the meaning of Shabbat. Here is an English translation, with a few notes in italics to spark your thoughts:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Some people refer to this first blessing as the “short Kiddush.” No, actually it is the blessing over wine, and it is a blessing you can say over any glass of wine or juice from vine-grown fruit. Kiddush is specific to Shabbat, and includes the blessing for wine. So for that part of Kiddush, keep reading:

Praise to You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe
Who sanctified us with commandments, and favored us, 

Eternal is a name I substitute for the four-letter name of God that Jews do not pronounce. Other choices are HaShem (the Name) and Adonai (my Lord.) What name do you prefer to use for God? Why that one?
What does it mean to be “sanctified with commandments”?
How do commandments make us holy?

and with love and intent gave us the holy Sabbath,
as a reminder of the work of Creation.

see Genesis 2:1-3. God rested on the seventh day. Why did God rest? Does God need rest? 

As first among our holy days,

Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday

it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

Shabbat not only recalls Creation, it recalls the Exodus as well.  What is the connection between Shabbat and freedom

You chose us and set us apart from the nations.

see Genesis 12:1-3  How does keeping Shabbat set us apart? How does it draw us closer?

In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

What associations do you have for the words “in love and favor” and “inheritance”? What does this suggest to you about Shabbat?

Praise to You, Eternal, who sanctifies Shabbat.

What about this prayer intrigues you? Is there anything in it that disturbs you? What does it mean to you? What does Shabbat mean to you?

Shabbat table

Image: A loaf of challah, a pair of candlesticks, and a kiddush cup full of wine. (Shutterstock)

Shabbat, Shalem, and Shalom

Image: A sunset. (annca/Pixabay)

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world… – The Sabbath, p. 10, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Heschel sets up a dichotomy: “the tyranny of things of space” versus “holiness in time.”  The former is a straightforward concept: we work during the week to fulfill our needs for survival: food, water, clothing for warmth, a place to rest, safety, etc. If we are fortunate, our labors move us up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to less basic needs, to things such as a sense of belonging and esteem: a place in the community, and a sense of worth. Maslow caps his pyramid with “self-actualization,” which he described as the human need to become the most that one can be. All of these things are centered on the self, and they are indeed good and necessary things. We cannot continue to live without meeting our most basic needs, and a life with only minimal survival needs met is a hard life.

However, a Jew seeks more, to be “attuned to holiness in time.” This means that on one day a week, we stop our constant striving and instead, we listen. Instead of making and doing, we pause and reflect. Holiness in time is not about survival. Rather it is the wellspring of shalem and shalom, wholeness and peace, two words from a single root.

We cannot acquire wholeness or peace. They are not commodities to be bought and sold, made or manufactured. Instead we discover them, and they discover us. In this case, “discover” is truly dis-cover, to un-cover, for once we find them, we know that wholeness and peace, shalem and shalom, were there all along.

This Shabbat, let us open our hearts to peace and wholeness. Allow for  the possibility that shalem and shalom already exist within us, only we have been too busy to perceive them. Once the busy-ness has ceased, once the yammer of news and entertainment have stopped, once our striving for food and shelter and diversion has paused, the truth of creation will open before us.

Shabbat Shalom: No Nagging, Please!

Image: The word “nagging” in black, with a red “NO” sign imposed upon it.

How do you begin to keep Shabbat, if you didn’t grow up with it?

Here’s how I began to keep Shabbat more than 25 years ago.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. It seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.’” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

This is an update of a post from several years ago.

What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

Image: A family celebrating Shabbat. (GoldenPixelsLLC/Shutterstock)

Someone recently found this site by searching the string: “Meaning of ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”

“Shabbat shalom” is a Hebrew greeting for the Jewish Sabbath. Its literal meaning is “Sabbath of Peace.” 

Shabbat [the Sabbath] officially begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday. You will usually hear the greeting or read it online from Friday morning onwards through sundown Saturday.

Informally, the phrase means, “I wish you a nice Sabbath.” For more about the deeper meanings of “shalom,” see What is Shalom? on this blog.

“Shabbat Shalom” is pronounced shah-BAHT shah-LOAM.

You may also hear “Gut Shabbes,” which is the same wish in Yiddish. It is pronounced GOOT SHAH-bes.

The proper reply is to repeat the phrase in Hebrew or Yiddish. If you are not comfortable with that, a good second choice is “Thanks, you too!”


“And They Will Keep” – V’shamru


Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from

If you attend Shabbat services in a the synagogue, sooner or later you will notice these lines, either sung or spoken:

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat,
la’asot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.
Beini u’vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi l’olam,
ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai
et hashamayim v’et haaretz,
u’vayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash.

It’s actually a quotation from the book of Exodus:

The children of Israel will keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath in every generation as an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day [God] ceased work and refreshed God’s self. – Exodus 31:16-17

Reading this in the context of a Shabbat service, we remind ourselves why we continue this ancient practice. We keep it because our ancestors were commanded to keep it. We keep it because it is our custom as a people. We keep it in remembrance of our unique Creation story.  We keep it because it keeps us.  We have many different ways of keeping it, but when we do, our lives are fuller.

Jews have had a special place in our hearts and in the liturgy for these verses from Exodus because they express our love affair with Shabbat. We love them so much that we often sing them.

Many different musicians and cantors have set it to music: search YouTube with the string “v’shamru” and thousands of recordings will pop up. One version you will hear in many Reform and Conservative shuls is a tune by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum:

One of my favorites is this one by Cantor Jacob Goldstein:


And the meditative Debbie Friedman z”l setting:

What is your favorite prayer in the Shabbat service? If you tell me in the comments, I can either direct  you to an article I’ve written on it, or I will be inspired to write one!

Freedom From, Freedom To

Image: Woman dancing before the sunset. Photo by jill111/pixabay.

How is this Shabbat different from all other Shabbats?

This Shabbat falls within the week of Passover, the festival of freedom. Our ancestors were not free to keep Shabbat in Egypt – their work week was 7 days, like everyone else in the ancient world. Only after we left Egypt were we free to take on that mitzvah, the mitzvah to rest once a week.

Everyone else thought it was laziness. We have records of Greeks and Romans talking about the peculiar habit of the Jews, and they believed it showed that Jews were morally inferior.

Certainly the robber barons and bosses of the Gilded Age in the United States thought it was nothing but laziness, when labor leaders (many of them Jewish) argued for a five day work week that would allow Jews and Christians to keep their Sabbaths.

Free people are free to keep Shabbat. Now, in our new Gilded Age in the 21st century, as rich and poor slip farther and farther away from each other, Shabbat may seem a luxury few can afford. For others, addiction to electronics may make it extremely difficult to unplug.

This Shabbat, it’s time to ask ourselves, to whom or what am I enslaved? What can I do about that?

Whom have I enslaved? Is there anyone I underpay? Anyone of whom I take unfair advantage? Anyone I expect to drop everything for me, because I am, well, me? What can I do about that?

This Shabbat, as we rest, or as we are unable to rest, we can ponder the realities of our lives.

A Shabbat Shalom to all my readers, and to all, moadim l’simchah, may you enjoy these remaining days of Pesach!

A Radical Jewish Notion: Shabbat

Image: Two people sit on a bench and look at a landscape. Photo by 4clients via

Shabbat is a radical, transformative idea.

In the ancient world, there were no weekends; most people worked 7 days a week. Even those who lived more leisurely lives, like Pharaoh or the Mesopotamian rulers, had rigid roles to carry out and from which there was no break.

Then along came the Jews, with our peculiar Creation story. Unlike any other Creation narrative, ours begins as follows:

When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

…and so on. The process of Creation is not a making from nothing, but an organization of a pre-existing chaos. From that chaos, the Creator separates light from darkness, and organizes time as well: “evening and morning, a first day.” This goes on for six “days,” with the organization becoming more and more complex and sophisticated. Then something remarkable happens:

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. – Genesis 2:1-3

The Creator steps back from Creation, and rests. Work stops.

Some people get all wound up over this story, fighting about whether the world was “created in six days” and how that squares with evolution. Those people are missing the point: the point is that in six steps, the Creator takes the world from utter chaos to exquisite organization and then STOPS to rest. And by “declaring it holy” the narrative suggests to us that this is an example to us. The rest of the Torah will flesh that out.

Later we would get the same thing in the form of a commandment, just in case we didn’t get it the first time, from the narrative.

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 the Eternal 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 the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. – Exodus 20:8-11

So here we are, 21st century Jews: we have to figure out what to do with this idea of Shabbat. Oddly enough, we are now back in an age when more and more people are forced to work 7 days a week, with demands coming hourly through email and smartphones.

It is a radical act to say, “No, I am going to make time and space in my life that I will use to BE instead of DO. I will use that time to make a genuine connection with people I love. I will use that time to become more truly myself. And yes, I will rest.”

It isn’t easy or profitable. It means hustling a little more to take the time off. And perhaps we will need to begin by carving out a little time, then gradually expanding it as we are able. That’s OK. The more Shabbat, the richer life can be; we have a lifetime to get there.

Ahad Ha’am, a great Hebrew essayist and cultural Zionist wrote:

More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.

Shabbat is a taste of the world as it could be, a world in which there is no slavery, and in which every person is valued for who they are, not for what they can do. It is said that if enough Jews kept Shabbat, the world would be transformed.

I believe it.

Shabbat Shalom! – Nitzavim

We are near the end of the Torah, and near the end of the Jewish year. Moses’ farewell to his people, Nitzavim, comes at a fitting time, just after we said goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel, another great leader.

I am dealing with a family crisis this week, and so y’all are on your own to find divrei Torah. I have faith in you. Check the Rabbis Who Blog on this website. Search your favorite search engine. Go to services!

I shall write again soon.