Blessings and Customs of Shabbat

March 10, 2015

15 min read


One of the holiest days, comes around every week.

A Jewish riddle: Some mitzvot we perform through the act of eating (e.g. matzah on Passover), while other mitzvot we perform by thinking (e.g. Torah study). Some mitzvot we perform by speaking (e.g. reciting the Shema), while others we perform by hearing (e.g. the shofar on Rosh Hashana). But there are certain mitzvot we perform by immersing ourselves totally – i.e. where our body is completely surrounded by the mitzvah. Try to guess what they are before reading on...

Four Immersions

There are four mitzvot that involve total bodily immersion:

  1. Sukkah – On the holiday of Sukkot, the mitzvah is to be completely enveloped by dwelling in a Sukkah.
  2. Mikveh – At appropriate times, we completely immerse ourselves in the purifying waters of the Mikveh.
  3. Israel – It is a mitzvah to be physically located in the Land of Israel.

These three are similar in that they are all immersions in a particular place.

The fourth answer? Shabbat.

When Shabbat comes, we immerse in a new dimension of time. In this way, Shabbat is qualitatively different. Rather than a holy "place" that we must enter into, Shabbat is a holiness that comes to us, once a week, every week. And while we can always walk away from a Sukkah or leave Israel, Shabbat has a stability and permanence that transcends the limitations of space. No travel agent required.

Shabbat is at the very center of Jewish consciousness. It is the only ritual observance which is part of the Ten Commandments, and is one of the greatest sources of Jewish inspiration.

Positive and Negative Commands

The Ten Commandments are recorded twice in the Torah. In Exodus 20:8 the verse says, "Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it," and in Deuteronomy 5:12 the verses says, "Guard the Shabbat day to sanctify it." The Talmud explains that both words were spoken at once, and refer to the two primary aspects of Shabbat observance: To 'remember' is to perform the 'positive' mitzvot of Shabbat, and to 'guard' is to refrain from the 'negative' mitzvot of Shabbat.1

Similarly, the Torah declares two central commandments regarding Shabbat. The first is not to work on Shabbat: "Six days you shall work, and the seventh day is Shabbat to the Lord your God. [On that day] you shall not do any melacha."2 (Melacha is a type of work which we will define later.)

The second is a positive commandment to rest on Shabbat: "And on the seventh day you shall rest."3

If the Torah mentions two separate commands, then clearly "refraining from work" is not sufficient to automatically include "rest." Rather, the "resting" we do on Shabbat must be something beyond the natural outcome of not working.4

To reach this higher state of spirituality, there are a variety of 'positive' actions associated with Shabbat. Here's an overview:

1) Lighting Candles

The image of a Jewish woman lighting Sabbath candles is a timeless symbol of Judaism. In lighting the candles, she invites peace and harmony into the home, infusing the atmosphere with spiritual and physical light. The custom is to light two candles, approximately 18 minutes before sundown,5 at which time Shabbat officially begins. After lighting the candles, a blessing is said, and this is a good time for private meditation, reflecting on the past week and praying for friends and family.

Lighting Shabbat Candles




2) Kavod Shabbat

In Judaism, the days of the week (Sunday, Monday, etc.) don't have special names of their own. Rather, we refer to these weekdays as "the first day toward Shabbat," "the second day toward Shabbat," etc. Each day is known only by its relation to Shabbat. In this way, we are constantly reminded of the centrality of Shabbat, and we anticipate its arrival.

In this regard, there is a special mitzvah of kavod Shabbat – "honoring Shabbat." We prepare special food and don our best clothing in honor of Shabbat.6 No expense is spared, and the Talmud7 tells us that God will pay us back for any money spent to buy special food and drink in honor of Shabbat.

3) Kiddush & Meals

On Friday night, prior to Kiddush, we gather at the Sabbath table and sing "Shalom Aleichem," a greeting to the angels that escort a person home from synagogue.

Shalom Aleichem

Shalom Aleichem


This is followed by the singing of "Eishet Chayil," verses from King Solomon's Proverbs8 in praise of Jewish women.

Eishet Chayil

Eishet Chayil


Also before Kiddush, many parents bless each of their children to walk in health and strength on the path of our holy ancestors.

Blessing the Children: Boys



Blessing the Children: Girls



The mitzvah to 'remember' Shabbat (zachor) is performed by sanctifying the day with the recitation of Kiddush over wine.9

Kiddush: Friday Evening




After Kiddush, the meal begins with the ritual washing of the hands, followed by the HaMotzi blessing over two loaves of bread.10

Washing Hands






A key component of the meals is Divrei Torah, words of Torah11 – inspiring thoughts from the weekly Torah portion. The Devar Torah should be the springboard to a lively discussion at the table, with questions welcome from everyone, young and old. There are a number of excellent books available that give some relevant thoughts on the parsha of the week:

  • Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, with topics for discussion on each weekly portion.
  • Shmooze: A Guide to Thought-Provoking Discussions on Essential Jewish Issues at
  • For children, try the always-entertaining Family Parsha at

[Further, the Sages said: "Shabbat and festivals were only given to provide Jews with the opportunity to study Torah." Since most people are busy with work all week, they have little time to engage in Torah study. But on Shabbat, each person can study according to his own level and ability.]

A highlight of the Shabbat table is the singing of zemirot, special Shabbat songs.12

The meal ends with Birkat HaMazone, the Grace After Meals.

Grace After Meals




A second festive meal is held on Shabbat morning following synagogue services. This meal begins with Kiddush said over a cup of wine.

Kiddush: Shabbat Morning




Finally, there is a special mitzvah on Shabbat to eat a third meal (called Seudah Shlishit), just prior to sundown on Saturday afternoon.13

4) Oneg Shabbat

A mitzvah known as Oneg Shabbat exhorts us to 'enjoy' the Shabbat. Whether you enjoy a stroll in the park, an afternoon nap, or telling a long bedtime story to your kids, Shabbat is the perfect time for it.14

Since we eat three meals on Shabbat, we prepare our best and favorite foods. If chocolate ice cream is your favorite, eat some on Shabbat. There are, however, traditional foods that have come to be associated with Shabbat, including:

  • Challah – sweet, braided bread that we use for the HaMotzi blessing at the start of each Shabbat meal.
  • Gefilte Fish – ground fish, topped with a carrot and spiked with spicy horseradish.15
  • Chopped Liver – calf or chicken liver, sautéed in onions, then mixed with hard-boiled eggs, salt and pepper.16
  • Chicken Soup – AKA "Jewish penicillin," in recognition of its curative powers. Chicken soup can be garnished with noodles, 'soup nuts,' or matzah balls.
  • Chicken – Even an impoverished Jewish family tries to acquire at least one chicken in honor of the Shabbat meals.
  • Kugel – loosely translated as "pudding" or "casserole," there are nearly endless varieties. Sweet kugel is made with noodles, raisins and cinnamon. Jerusalem kugel combines noodles with caramelized sugar and black pepper. Potato and carrot kugels are popular, too.
  • Chollent – a Jewish stew that comes in many flavors and styles, but usually containing meat, potatoes, beans and barley. Since cooking is prohibited on Shabbat, but hot food is appropriate, chollent is the solution: left on a covered fire or hot plate, untouched from before sunset on Friday until the following lunch.17

5) Prayer

A joyous aspect of Shabbat is having the time to spend in synagogue with no thoughts of rushing off to work or errands.

Friday evening prayers are inaugurated with Kabbalat Shabbat – "welcoming the Shabbat." In past times it was the custom to go out to the fields before sunset to symbolically greet Shabbat.18 Today we greet Shabbat by reciting the psalms and songs of the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, culminating with "Lecha Dodi," where we turn to face the door and sing: "Enter in peace, O crown of creation... Enter our bride, our Shabbat Queen." The Friday evening prayers continue with Ma'ariv.

On Shabbat morning, synagogue services begin with Shacharit, followed by the reading of the weekly Torah portion, and a reading from the prophets, called the Haftorah. The services conclude with the ussaf prayer.19

On Shabbat afternoon, synagogue services consist of a Torah reading from the coming week's portion, and the Mincha prayer.20

Shabbat and the Tabernacle

The Torah tells how Moses gathered together the Jewish people and tells them the following:

"You may do melacha during the six weekdays, but the seventh day shall be holy for you... Do not ignite a fire in any of your dwelling-places on the Shabbat day."21

Immediately following this, the Torah describes the tasks necessary for building the Tabernacle, the precursor to the Holy Temple. Why does the Torah juxtapose building the Tabernacle with the mitzvah to observe Shabbat?

Because Shabbat and the Tabernacle are one and the same. They are both links to a transcendent dimension. During the Jewish people's 2,000 years of exile from the land following the destruction of our Holy Temple, Shabbat served as our sanctuary, the place to restore and refresh our perspective in a world often hostile to Torah values.22 As it is said: "As much as the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."

But the connection between Shabbat and the Temple is much deeper. In the verses quoted above, the Torah forbids melacha as a violation of Shabbat. The Talmud23 explains: The Torah juxtaposes Shabbat and the Tabernacle to teach us that the 39 activities used to construct the Tabernacle, are the very same 39 activities that are forbidden on Shabbat. For instance, since the Tabernacle involved sewing, we don't sew on Shabbat; since it involved cooking, we don't cook.

The kabbalists explain the deeper connection:

God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. In our effort to emulate God, we must likewise rest on the seventh. But to know how God rested on the seventh, we first need to know what creative acts He did during the six days.

Here is where the Tabernacle is key: The Tabernacle represents a microcosm of the universe – a distillation of all the energies, patterns and resources found in the material world. Betzalel, chief architect of the Tabernacle, understood the blueprint for the Tabernacle's construction only because he understood the code of Creation. In fact, the name Betzalel means "in the shadow of God."

Therefore as the microcosm of creation, the activities performed in constructing the Tabernacle precisely parallel those acts performed by God (so to speak) in creating the world – i.e. since the Tabernacle involved writing, we emulate God's rest by not writing on Shabbat.

Melacha is different from the secular definition of "work." On Shabbat we refrain from "creative acts," not "exertion." For example, it may be permitted on Shabbat to carry a heavy box from the basement to the attic, but at the same time it is forbidden to strike a match. Moving the box involves no change in the creative state of the object, whereas lighting the match clearly does.

God gave mankind the power to manipulate and change the world. Because of this, we are easily lulled into thinking that we are in control of the world. How do we make sure we don't misunderstand our place in the universe?

Once every seven days, we step back from the world and make a statement to ourselves and humanity that we are not in charge of this world. We stop all creative work and acknowledge that it is God's world, not ours. We can manipulate the world, but we don't own it. When we refrain from creative activity on Shabbat, we regain clarity and understanding as to Who is the true Creator.

End of Shabbat

Just as we proclaim the entrance of Shabbat by making "Kiddush," so too we mark the exit of Shabbat with "Havdallah." For this you'll need a cup of wine (or grape juice), a double-wicked candle, and some spices to smell.24 Why all this?

Silver Havdallah set

The Jewish mystics explain that on Shabbat, we each receive an extra soul, i.e. an extra measure of spiritual sensitivity. So as Shabbat goes away, so too does the extra soul. For this reason we smell some spices – kind of like spiritual smelling salts!25

We also make a blessing on the candle, since tradition is that Adam first used fire on Saturday night. And we wish to extend the light of Shabbat into our week.26

On Saturday evening, we eat a small meal called Melaveh Malka, literally "escorting the queen." We have the flavor of Shabbat linger just a bit longer, to give us strength and inspiration for the coming week.27





Shabbat of Redemption

Herman Wouk has observed, "The Sabbath is the usual breaking off point from tradition, and also the point at which many Jews rejoin Judaism."

The Talmud28 reports: "If all Jews were to observe just two Shabbats properly, the final redemption would occur."

Why is it necessary to observe two Shabbats properly? Why isn't one enough?

There is a world of difference between the first Shabbat and the second. A Shabbat observed in isolation would surely be spiritually uplifting, but this is not the type of Shabbat which would lead to redemption. More than a single day, Shabbat must "spill over" into the ensuing week, elevating all our actions and thoughts.

Shabbat is not the end of our week, rather it is the source of energy. The second Shabbat, approached after a week so influenced, is completely different. It marks a spiritual apex, not a spiritual island. This is the type of Shabbat whose observance will bring about redemption. This is the Shabbat of a week, and a world, uplifted.29

Shabbat gives balance and perspective to our lives and to our week. A cube, which has six sides, receives form and substance from its solid center. So too, the six days of our week are balanced by Shabbat – the inner dimension.

The brilliant Greek civilization which bequeathed us Plato and Aristotle, mocked the Jews for not working one day a week. Jews were then called shiftless and lazy, not by barbarians, but by people whose writings are still studied in the universities of the world. It took the civilized world all these centuries to begin to realize the value of a day of rest, and make the six-day work week the basis of its social order.

Shabbat is, in the words, of the Talmud, the precious gift given to the Jewish people.30

  1. Talmud – Shavuot 20b
  2. Exodus 20:9
  3. Exodus 23:12
  4. See Rambam (Shabbat 21:1); Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 5:20:20)
  5. Mishnah Berurah 261:23. Local custom may vary; in Jerusalem, candles are lit 40 minutes before sundown.
  6. Mishnah Berurah 242:1
  7. Beitza 15b
  8. 31:10-31
  9. Talmud – Pesachim 106a
  10. Talmud – Shabbat 117b; Orach Chaim 274:1
  11. Mishnah – Avot 3:3
  12. Siddur Roke’ach 106; Mishnah Berurah 275:8
  13. Talmud – Shabbat 117b
  14. Isaiah 58:13, with Radak
  15. Mishnah Berurah 242:2. The origin of gefilte fish is traced to the Shabbat prohibition of Borer, which precludes one from (easily) removing bones from fish. To circumvent this, Jewish homemakers turned to grinding the fish before cooking.
  16. Because of its unusual taste and texture, it is an acquired taste and not everyone’s favorite food. This has given rise to the popular Jewish-American expression "What am I, chopped liver?!" – signifying frustration at being ignored on a social level.
  17. Orach Chaim 257:8
  18. Talmud – Baba Kama 32b
  19. Orach Chaim 282; 286
  20. Orach Chaim 292:1
  21. Exodus 35:2-3
  22. Mishnah Berurah 262:10
  23. Talmud – Shabbat 73a; Baba Kama 2a
  24. Orach Chaim 296:8
  25. Mishnah Berurah 297:2
  26. Talmud – Pesachim 54a; Mishnah Berurah 298:1
  27. Orach Chaim 300:1, with Mishnah Berurah 2
  28. Shabbat 118b
  29. see Kedushat HaLevi, Ki Tisa 31:13
  30. Talmud – Shabbat 10b
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