The Art of Judaism

Shabbat and Self-Awareness

More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad ha-Am)

Rav Yehudah quoted Rav: anyone who delights in Shabbat is given all the desires of his heart. (Shabbat 118a)

I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself. (Pietro Aretino)

As I’m on Sabbatical, I thought that I’d begin my ‘Art of Judaism’ series proper with some thoughts about Shabbat and self-awareness.  I realise that even for Jewish aficionados, the connection between them is not obvious and may even be counter-intuitive, but I will try to explain.

Apart from having a few months of Shabbatot when I’m ‘not the rabbi’, while I’ve been in Israel on my own, it’s been a rewarding experience being the Shabbat guest rather than the Shabbat host.  I've had a chance to think about what Shabbat means to me rather how I can make it meaningful for other people.

In a previous life, I used to conduct pre-Bar and Bat Mitzvah basic Judaism tests.  One of the questions was, ‘tell me four things about Shabbat’.  Invariably, the response started with ‘can’t watch TV and can’t drive a car’ and continued in the same negative vein; in effect, the answer was always, ‘all the fun things that I want to do when I’m not at school, like going out and watching TV, I can’t do on Shabbat’.  This reflects the prevalent Anglo-Jewish ‘straight-jacket’ perception of Shabbat observance: a tedious day of unfulfilling and largely meaningless prohibitions.  It’s no wonder that most people wouldn’t even consider giving it a try.  Yet for the experienced Shabbat-observer, who ‘calls Shabbat a delight,’[1] the restrictions provide only the lightest of backdrops to what is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I’ve been struck by the references to Shabbat as a ‘queen’ or a ‘bride’.  This idea may enable me to unravel some unfamiliar aspects of Shabbat, so I’d like to explore it a little.  It originates with two third-century Galilean scholars, Rabbis Hanina and Yanay, who would dress in their best clothes to greet Shabbat.  The Talmud[2] records that Rabbi Hanina would say to his disciples: ‘Come!  Let us go out to greet the Shabbat Queen’, whereas Rabbi Yanay would proclaim: ‘Come, O Bride, come O Bride’.  This practice was revived in sixteenth-century Tzefat, where the circle of mystics around Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) would go out into the fields at sunset on Friday to welcome Shabbat.  Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabetz, a prominent member of this coterie, composed the most cherished of all Shabbat hymns, ‘Lekha Dodi’ – ‘Come my beloved’, sung in all communities on Friday night; the most famous line of this song is: ‘May your God rejoice over you like a groom rejoices over his bride’.

Why have rabbis and mystics throughout the ages chosen to compare Shabbat to a queen or a bride?  And if Shabbat is the bride, who is the groom?

For Rabbi David Abudirham (fourteenth-century Seville), God himself is the groom: Shabbat and God experience a wedding-like transformation in their relationship over the course of the day.[3]  Friday night is the marriage ceremony, Shabbat morning is the simhah, and in the waning moments of Shabbat, the union of the ‘happy couple’ is consummated.  And as if to mark this transition, the two, separate candles which celebrate the beginning of Shabbat are twisted into a single havdalah lamp, whose luminescence marks the end of the holy day.

For others, however, we are the groom,[4] and Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to consummate our relationship with God, allowing us to spend at least a seventh of our lives basking in the presence of the Divine.

While this seems rather abstract, it has a real and accessible aspect.  ‘Meeting’ God on a weekly teaches us to see ourselves as God sees us and to benefit from a powerful and renewed sense of purpose and self-understanding.  But this can only occur in an environment of mutuality: if we wish to profit from the gift of contact with God, then we must attune ourselves to His way of being on Shabbat.  On the very first Shabbat and on each Shabbat thereafter, God ceased all creative activity, choosing instead to infuse theworld with spiritual meaning.[5]  As such, we can only take advantage of our encounter with the Divine if we emulate God by refraining from creative activity during Shabbat, investing ourselves in spiritual matters instead.  Hence Shabbat observance consists of positive, spiritually-focused activities balanced against a blanket prohibition of creative activity.

During the week, how many of us have the time or composure to think about the purpose of life and who we really are?  How often do we re-evaluate our aspirations and consider whether we are actually achieving them?  Which of us feel that we ever attain sufficient self-awareness to delight in our strengths and address our weaknesses?  Shabbat, with its inimitable combination of delightful family meals, complete cessation from productive activities, opportunities for Torah study and contemplation, special prayers and physical rest, affords us the opportunity to achieve all of these and much more.  As Professor A.J. Heschel notes, Shabbat is ‘more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above’.[6]

Of course, none of this means much to children, not least those who answered my test.  Clearly, for little ones, Shabbat should be filled with wonderful play, delicious treats and relaxing family time.  As they get older, they could also be encouraged to think about what is important to them, their priorities and how a day away from their regular routine focusing on 'meaning' might be valuable.  If Shabbat has always been a delightful and positive day, they will probably be capable of internalising some of its more esoteric and 'adult' aspects as they mature.  This requires us to think hard about how we celebrate Shabbat as families and communities, something that I will address in a subsequent article.

The art of Shabbat observance provides not just a break from the endless banality of weekday activity, but a profound opportunity for self-discovery in a safe, nurturing and holy environment.  This transformational opportunity is, I believe, what the Sages meant by the neshamah yeteirah[7] – the extra soul granted for the duration of Shabbat, something to cherish, cultivate and celebrate.


[1] Isaiah 58.13.

[2] TB Shabbat 119a.

[3] Abudirham, Order of Shabbat Evening Service and its explanation, 1963 edition, p.147.

[4] Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Meiri to TB Shabbat 119a.

[5] Cf. Commentary of Rabbi Hayyim Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim) to BeReishit 2:2 and Shemot 31:16.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, repr., 2005), pp. 31-2.

[7] TB Beitzah 16a.