Laws of Shabbat for Beginners
What, how, why and where do all these laws come from?
In one breath, God said both, "Guard and remember the Shabbat."
Love of God, time with family, reconnecting with friends and with oneself -- all these fulfill the commandment to "remember" Shabbat.
But these beautiful concepts must also be grounded in a foundation of strength, a structure that will provide the soil in which these ideas can take hold, root and blossom.
This foundation is the commandment to "guard" Shabbat, as detailed in halacha, Jewish law.
Yet the word halacha does not literally translate as "law," for it comes from the root halach, which means "to go," "to walk." Halacha means "a path." It is not about cold do's and don't's, but about movement. When one learns the laws in a deep way and applies them within a Jewish lifestyle, halacha becomes not a restriction, but a direction. And when paired with the beauty of "remember," the coupling opens up a world without limitations -- a world of endless depth and opportunity.
The two commandments, to guard and to remember, were said by God in one breath, for one without the other would be empty.
If you are in a relationship and you hear from the other person the words "I love you," there is a nice feeling. But suppose the person never did anything, never demonstrated the love in any way. Words without action are merely... words.
If you want to make real the idea that God is Creator, you must stop creating. Otherwise it is a beautiful concept that remains in the theoretical.
On Shabbat the world is complete. I am complete. Shabbat is the weekly reminder of this completeness. We recognize it, but the only way to make it happen is to live it, to emulate it.
When God says, "Six days a week you will do all your work," He is not just talking about making the office deadlines. He is talking about us, and how we strive to work on ourselves.
Shabbat is there, calling us to where we want to be: self-actualization; nature; oneness; completion. The ideas are within reach; grasping them means heading in the right direction. The path is halacha.
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Where do all these laws come from?
Remember the part in the movie The Ten Commandments when the Jewish people leave Egypt and are wandering through the desert? At one point, God instructs them to build a Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would hold, among other things, the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This Mishkan would be carried by the Jewish people throughout their journey.
Our tradition tells us that through understanding the Mishkan, we will understand Shabbat.
This was to be the central dwelling place of God's presence. It would bring God's presence into this world. Any activity used in forming this house of the Creator would be considered acts of creation.
On Shabbat we also strive to bring God's presence into this world. We remove ourselves from creating in order to reaffirm that we do not have mastery over our lives. Someone else is in charge.
To learn what is considered "creating," we study the principles found in the original creation of the Mishkan. Our tradition identifies 39 categories.
There are many books that discuss these concepts and list the laws of Shabbat in detailed form. They cover almost any possible occurrence on Shabbat and how properly to deal with it. (For example, "A framed picture falls from the wall. Am I allowed to rehang it on Shabbat?")
However, there are very basic areas of law that deal with action, or refraining from action, that occur on an average Shabbat (assuming you are not marooned on a desert island, or on a ship at sea).
We are not allowed to apply heat to things in order to change them in any way. Loaves of bread were formed and baked for the Mishkan; thus we refrain from any sort of cooking on Shabbat.
How to approach it: It's basically a matter of cooking ahead and keeping things warm, either by using a blech (cover for the stovetop) or by using a slow cooker. Water is kept hot using an urn that is plugged in before Shabbat. To properly keep this important aspect of Shabbat, careful study is required.
Fires cannot be started or extinguished on Shabbat, and driving (which sparks and burns fuel) falls under this category.
How to approach it: Walk! There is no greater feeling than just plain walking. It's a total slowdown, giving one time to think, look around, breathe. It's amazing what we miss, as we zoom by life in an automobile. Enjoy the break from having to go everywhere, and just enjoy being.
If your synagogue is a real hike away, you may want to drive there Friday night before Shabbat begins and park the car there until Saturday night. Then there is just the one-way walk back home Friday night. During the day, the walk to and from shul seems a pleasure.
Plan to visit friends and neighbors nearby, or arrange to meet with them halfway, or at the park on Shabbat afternoon.
On Shabbat, we avoid weekday activities such as shopping, and thus money is Muktzah, among the objects that have no purpose on Shabbat and thus are not to be moved. Bills (which of course can't be paid) are also muktzah.
How to approach it: Put away wallets, purses, and loose change before Shabbat begins.
There is a prohibition against using electrical appliances on Shabbat – such as telephones, radios, and television. It also happens to be an area that, when observed, provides one of the most pleasurable aspects of Shabbat. The island of peace that you wish to reach can be achieved only through the beautiful silence of no ringing phones.
How to approach it: You may want family and friends to know that you will be unavailable by phone during Shabbat. People usually catch on quickly and just take it in stride that they must wait until Saturday night to call. If you really want a Shabbat atmosphere, unplug the phones so you won't be disturbed by the ringing.
Indoor lighting is also generated using electricity, which is forbidden on Shabbat.
How to approach it: Decide which lights should be left on and which left off before Shabbat begins. You may want to tape certain light switches in high-traffic areas, such as bathrooms, so they aren't inadvertently turned off or on. (Sleepy trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night often end in an automatic flip of the switch!)
Timers can be used to automatically turn lights on and off throughout Shabbat, as long as they are preset before Shabbat begins.
Things that are attached -- through glue, sewing, or even perforation -- cannot be unattached for a purpose on Shabbat. This would involve taking something in one form and carefully dividing it up into another for some use, thus creating something anew. Paper towels also fall into this category.
How to approach it: Pre-tear toilet paper before Shabbat, or use tissues. For paper towels, pre-tear what you might need, or use paper napkins.
Watering plants/picking flowers
If everything is complete on Shabbat and we are refraining from things that indicate that we have mastery over the world, then causing things to live (or in some cases causing things to die) would, of course, be avoided. Thus, once Shabbat begins, we do not water our plants (nor place cut flowers in water on Shabbat).
How to approach it: Make sure flowers are put in water ahead of time and that plants are watered before Shabbat. If someone happens to bring you cut flowers after Shabbat has begun, thank them and simply put them in a vase without water. They're usually fine; just add water once Shabbat is over.
Writing, drawing, erasing, even tearing through letters on a package are avoided. Pens, pencils, erasers, etc., thus fall under the category of Muktzah.
How to approach it: Put away pencils, markers, pens, etc., so you won't come to use them. Any packages or bottle caps that are to be used on Shabbat should be pre-opened (or carefully opened on Shabbat), so as not to tear through any letters.
Important note: When it comes to human life, everything is done to save it. Thus one can drive on Shabbat to bring someone in an emergency situation to a hospital. Phones can be used, and so forth. The laws of Shabbat are put aside to save a life.