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Home > Holidays > Shabbat's Guide to Shabbat
Observing Shabbat

Observing Shabbat

Shabbat begins at sunset Friday evening, and is welcomed by lighting Shabbat candles. Though this mitzvah, or commandment, is usually performed by women, if no women are available, men may light candles. A minimum of two candles is lit, signifying the two forms of the commandment, remembering and observing.

Married women often light an extra candle for each member of their families. There's an old tale that says that a woman who misses lighting candles one week will light one extra for the remainder of her life. Of course, that idea was probably started by a candlemaker.

Following the candle lighting, parents customarily bless their children, wishing to sons "May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe," the sons of Joseph, and to daughters "May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah," the matriarchs.

The Friday evening synagogue services include a special service known as "Kabbalat Shabbat," "Welcoming the Sabbath." This is followed by the daily evening service, maariv. After services people return home, often with guests in tow, since it is a mitzvah to have a guest at a festive meal.

Those who regularly observe Shabbat in some form know that it has a special radiance to it. That radiance is almost tangible by the time Shabbat dinner approaches, with wonderful smells emanating through the house and the table covered with beautiful linen and set with fine dishes.

Two songs are sung before the meal. The first, "Shalom Aleichem," welcomes the angels that, according to tradition, accompany synagogue attendees home, sort of a spiritual secret service. The second song, "Aishet Chayil" ("A Woman of Valor") is sung by all but meant from husband to wife, as a way of saying thanks for not clobbering me with that frying pan and giving me one of those cartoonish bumps on my head even though I sat on my butt while you did all the preparations for Shabbat.

The meal begins with kiddush, which is recited over a cup of wine or grape juice. Kiddush emphasizes God's creation, and that Jews should not create on this day, but rest as God rested; it also recalls the exodus from Egypt, implying that Jews are free to observe Shabbat, unlike when they were slaves in Egypt and could only rest if their masters permitted it.

On the table is a kiddush cup, a special cutting board and knife for the two braided loaves of bread known as challah. The challah recalls the manna in the desert, when God provided a double portion of manna on Friday so the Jews wouldn't have to desecrate Shabbat by gathering in food.

After kiddush, everyone washes his or her hands to prepare for eating bread. The meal begins with the Hamotzi blessing and distribution of bread. Shabbat meals are a great opportunity for family and friends to share what has happened during their week. People tell jokes and share stories, and some make a point of reciting a Dvar Torah, a short Torah thought, usually on the weekly portion.

After dessert, the Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals, is recited. Some sing z'mirot, Hebrew, Yiddish or English Shabbat songs.

After the meal, people often read, talk, take a walk, visit friends, play games, or just relax. And then there's one of those really well known mitzvahs-the positive commandment to have sexual relations on Friday night. Who says Jews don't perform mitzvahs with great fervor?

At Shabbat services the next morning, the Torah is read and followed by the Haftorah (Aramaic for "story"), the portion most commonly read by a bar/bat mitzvah boy or girl. An additional service, musaf, is also recited. Services conclude with a communal kiddush, offering a spread of food-quality and quantity depend of whether the synagogue has recruited a sponsor or is using its electricity money-and many leave the synagogue not hungry for the lunch that awaits them at home.

Shabbat lunch follows the same formula as dinner the night before. A popular lunch food is cholent, a traditional Eastern European dish of slow cooking meat, which begins cooking prior to the Shabbat and remains cooking until lunch.

What people do in the afternoon varies. In the summer, when Saturdays are the longest, some people study Torah, while others will play games or read. Everyone over the age of 14, however, tries to get in a good nap.

The third meal, Seudah Shlishit, follows the minchah (afternoon) service. Some eat this meal at home, and most synagogues that conduct minchah services serve a meal minimally consisting of bread rolls.

Shabbat ends with a special service known as Havdalah-literally "division"-that separates between the holy time and the rest of the week. Havdalah is said over a cup of wine, a braided candle that has more than one wick, and sweet-smelling spices. The candlelight signifies the distinguishing between Shabbat and the rest of the week, since fire is not created on Shabbat. The sweet-smelling spices come in response to the loss of the neshoma yetera, an additional soul absorbed on Shabbat that is lost when Shabbat ends.

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