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SIDIC Periodical X - 1977/1
Sabbath and Sunday (Pages 04 - 07)

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The Sabbath in Jewish Life
Isidoro Kahn


« The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, I have a precious gift in My treasure-house called the Sabbath, and I desire to give it to Israel; go and inform them. » This is what the Talmud says (Shabbat 10b) about this original Jewish festive institution, unique of its kind.

According to Jewish tradition, the consecration of the seventh day of the week is as old as the world. In the Mosaic Law (Gen. 2:2-3), the distinction between the Sabbath and the days preceding it goes back to the moment when the Eternal completed the work of creation by blessing and sanctifying the seventh day. However, according to the teaching of Jewish mysticism (Zohar 1,75), the other days, even though they were created first, exist only in function of the Sabbath. What is more, in the mind of God both man and the Sabbath preceded creation and both complete it. The world exists because of man and the Sabbath.

What then does the Sabbath mean in the life of the people of Israel? It is the quintessence of all values, of all the ideals expressed and contained in the Torah. The values and ideals of the Torah are eternally valid and applicable to all ages and to all states of life. Millennia pass, generations come and go, conditions change, but the principles proclaimed by the Eternal remain ever the same. The institution of the Sabbath is an irrefutable proof of this.

Today man's control of nature is extending into exceptional areas of power. In scientific research and technological invention man is ever more aware of his ability to transform into concrete reality what a few years before had seemed a mere dream. Such extraordinary scientific and technological progress has not been accompanied by a corresponding progress in respect for human life and understanding of humanity. This striking advance in science and technology bears within itself two grave risks both of which threaten the present and the future of humanity.

The unlimited possibility that man discovers in his own potential to realize his desires, contributes inevitably to an increase of pride and a decrease of humility. For modern man the drama of the lost paradise of Adam in the Garden of Eden is substantially renewed. Today he tends to consider everything permissible, to feel that neither limit nor measure should be imposed on experimentation. This increased feeling of pride leads by its very nature to a diminution of religious sense. Aware of the amazing results achieved by his own technico-scientific power, modern man finds neither place nor time to listen to the call of religion. He no longer looks upon himself as a collaborator with God in the preservation of the order of the universe and in the work of creation which is daily renewed. On the contrary he tends to repudiate all dependence on God, and to proclaim himself his one and only master.

If the results of scientific-technical progress have not so far changed our world for the better, the reason is, in my opinion, the wrong use of the results already obtained and the precise objectives to which these results are put. From time immemorial man has possessed certain means of promoting life and he has created others. If it is forgotten that these means should always correspond with the aim of progress supported by man's intelligence and appreciation of moral values, his creative power will sooner or later become a destructive force. His creative genius will no longer serve to build a mishkan, a sanctuary, in the desert but to transform the earth into a desert, with all that it contains.


The prophetic spirit of the Bible anticipates time and offers the means of realizing this true progress in man and through man. The aim of the Sabbath is to show what should be the finality, the right orientation, the just use of man's scientific-technical progress.

The Sabbath is the answer to the disquieting questions: what is the use of creating life in the laboratory if it is daily trampled upon, oppressed, desecrated and annihilated in the street? What is the use of inventing ways and means of alleviating man's fatigue if he continues to exploit beyond belief the labor of the many for the disproportionate enrichment of the few — if in this thermonuclear civilization, despite all its achievements there is no harmony among men, no serenity of soul?

The first and probably the most authentic meaning of the Sabbath abstention from work prescribed in the Torah (Ex. 20:8-12; Dem. 5:12-16) is this: to give man the opportunity of meditating on the essence and the meaning of life, on its limitations of time and space, limitations from which he does not escape and will never escape. Regularly every week, together with the reading from Genesis, the Sabbath gives herself to the believing Jew as a kind of appointment, a meeting between him and God. On the Sabbath he renounces for himself and his convenience the use of the aids and the products of his creative genius; he thus performs not only an act of devotion by recognizing God's absolute sovereignty over the whole universe, but also one of humility; he discovers a more just human dimension.

On the Sabbath the observant Jew stops to contemplate creation; he lives the day from a different viewpoint, and this fact makes it difficult for him not to encounter God. Hence, to observe the seventh day means to seek God, to celebrate his glory, his power, his love and his mercy.

All work stops on the Sabbath; we should try to relive the wonder that the first man surely felt before the marvels of heaven and earth, to discover in everything created the imprint of God's hand.


The second danger for our technical civilization begins when work becomes man's sole preoccupation and when he can no longer do without the elaborate products of this civilization.

• Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your man-servant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates » (Ex. 20:8-10). The Sabbath is therefore based on the fundamental idea that work is a natural and sacred right of man; but after six days of assiduous toil a day of respite, of rest is necessary.

Thousands of years ago the Law of Moses proclaimed to all men without distinction this right to weekly rest. The exploitation to which slaves were submitted in ancient times and in not so ancient times is well known. Against this exploitation of man by man, Moses, for the first time in the history of civilization, rises and proclaims as law the principle that all living beings, animals included, must be treated humanely and with understanding. On the Sabbath at least workers, servants, dependents are no longer bound to submit to their employer and to their labor. On the Sabbath day, these people are once again their own masters because the dignity that follows from being a free creature is entirely restored to them. Those who for material interest hinder or refuse this weekly rest offend against all personal dignity and, as it were, refuse to be liberated from that slavery to which all the children of Israel were subjected in Egypt. Those who impede or refuse this weekly rest in the spirit in which it is prescribed by Divine Law, perpetuate, encourage and increase social inequality, materialistic concepts of life, disharmony among men, primacy of the material over the spiritual. However, it would be a mistake to understand the Sabbath as intended solely for recuperation of physical energy in order to bring renewed vigor to the weekly work. Work is the basis of the Sabbath • only in the sense and in the measure in which it permits us to live better lives and to appreciate more fully the religious, social and human content of the Shabbat. Hence, the Sabbath does not exist for work; on the contrary, work exists for the Sabbath.


The Sabbath offers man the possibility, albeit by an act of faith, to put aside his work for one day so that it may not become a wearing grind impossible to halt, causing estrangement and neurosis. This in itself is already an extremely positive fact.

By forbidding the use of most instruments of our mechanized society, the Sabbath really succeeds in creating an authentic atmosphere of tranquility, ease of spirit and relaxed nervous tension; this, from the psychophysical point of view, is a most important element.

That in a society inspired by the Torah the Sabbath guarantees a day of real rest to all without exception, is already an extraordinary social achievement; yet for the people of Israel the Sabbath means much more than this. To understand exactly what it does mean for them we must know the history of this people, its sufferings, its longings, its sorrows and its hopes.

Who knows? Perhaps at the dawn of its creation, perhaps later, but undoubtedly at a given moment in its three thousand-year-old history, the people of Israel created for itself this day so different from other days, this kind of rejoicing so spiritual, so often in contrast with the sadness of external reality. From that moment the people of Israel and the Sabbath began to walk together. From that moment their destinies have been interwoven. The Sages of old said: a The Sabbath has kept Israel more than Israel has kept the Sabbath. » The truth is that here also the one exists in virtue of the other!

The Sabbath should be spent in joy, harmony and love because, as we read in Deutero-Isaiah 58:13-14, even in its scrupulous observance this day is a day of delight, delight which before all else both originates in God and flows back to him. The Sabbath should not however be a day of joy that finds its only meaning in God; it should be a day of joy, happiness and contentment for man also.

The Sabbath has been personified as a bride, and the people of Israel as her husband. The union of the spouses is one of joy and bliss, and the meeting between the believing Jew and the Shabbat should be the same. However, joy cannot co-exist with attitudes of discord, selfishness, oppression, destitution and discontent. Those therefore who would try to live the Sabbath in its true spirit must free themselves from all anxiety, all personal preoccupation, all enslavement to the pressing demands of daily life with its troubles and disappointments. It is certainly difficult to achieve all this, but not impossible! The numberless Jews segregated in ghettos during the dark centuries of the dispersion succeeded.

In the Romanzero written by the famous German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in 1851 there is among the Jewish melodies a song called a Princess Sabbath ». In the first seven verses of this song the poet describes in a wonderful way the marvellous change that takes place in a poor ragged Jew at the approach of Friday night. During the rest of the week he is a destitute beggar, sad, starving, wounded and distressed, but now, on the Sabbath, he feels happy, pleased to be alive, to see the Sabbath lamps lighted, the table covered with a white cloth, to sit down with his wife and his daughter to eat the Sabbath fish in garlic sauce; these could certainly not be considered great beauties but they are everything to him.

In conclusion, both body and soul must share in the joy of the Sabbath.


Thus the Sabbath always succeeds in bringing into the life of the observant Jew the fragrance of a different way of living, of a different conception of life, the fragrance of a world mid-way between the world ofthings and that of the spirit. For this reason the Sabbath has become a kind of ring uniting two worlds, the present and the future: the present with all its competition and rivalry, its fear and anxiety, its contrast and contradiction; and the future, the messianic times which will be completely kullo Shabbat, eternally Sabbath, that is, founded on peace, on love, and on universal harmony.

The Jewish Sabbath is transformed into the vigil of the day that is a all Sabbath », that is to say, into a means of realizing the messianic expectation, in so far as observance of the day that is a seventh part of the whole life of man succeeds in rousing religious sense, rekindling family love, renewing and reinforcing in each individual the duty of uniting himself with all those who combat social inequality, the false idols of our times, and who instead sustain the struggle of good against evil, justice against iniquity, freedom against intolerance and discrimination.

On the Sabbath feast, therefore, Israel's ancient faith in the universal messianic time, in the age-old optimism with which she has always looked upon man, recognizing his capacity and willingness to understand his fellow-men, is renewed. It is written at the beginning of Genesis that all men are babel Adam, sons of the one man, Adam; does this not necessarily mean that when we look around us we should recognize all men as our brothers? This is the foundation of the messianic concept. These are the feelings with which the believing Jew welcomes the Sabbath into his life and into his home.


But how are these values of which the Sabbath acts as ambassador translated concretely into the life of the observant Jew of our time? How is the Sabbath spent and lived in a real Jewish home?

The Sabbath, as we know, begins on Friday before sunset and ends on Saturday when the stars come out; but the preparations in fact begin a long time before, in the morning, sometimes even on the vigil. Moreover, during the course of the week, activities are arranged so that people can be free on the Sabbath. Sometimes arrangements are made with employers for extra working time to he put in during the week so as to have Saturday off.

The Shabbat is mainly spent at home with the family. Here from the early hours of the morning, especially in winter, there is an excited bustle, an impatience for the arrival of this weekly event, unique and absolutely binding. The home should be made as welcoming as possible in honor of the feast. Everything is specially cleaned, the linen changed; new things are used for the first time. Food for the special Sabbath dishes and those that are particular favorites is bought and cooked early. In addition, dispensing with servants and waiters, the Jewish literary precept in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (Halakhot Shabbat 30, 7) strongly urges everybody to share personally in the preparations for the Sabbath. It is, for example, considered equivalent to a real and profound religious act for the wife to make and bake the two special Sabbath loaves, ballot, to decorate the house with flowers, to prepare biscuits, sweets and other kinds of pastries. Fasting is forbidden on the Sabbath; on the contrary, it is obligatory to have three meals. One must therefore provide for the poor, foreigners and those travellers who stop to spend the Sabbath in our city. To help the poor is called in Hebrew zedakah, a term which expresses more than a gesture of almsgiving; it means an act of social justice. If, at the individual level, the zedakah is generally an initiative entrusted to personal generosity, to perform the zedakah on the Sabbath is a clear duty which no one can refuse.

When finally all preparations are completed and the dining room table is covered with a gleaming white cloth, freshly laundered, on which are the wine glasses and the two loaves for kiddush, the sanctification of the feast, the mistress of the house gives the signal for the beginning of the day of rest by lighting the candle and reciting the appropriate blessing. Then comes the departure for the synagogue in good time so as to join the chorus of those greeting the Sabbath with the ancient hymn of Solomon ha-Levi Alkabez, the well-known Lekha dodi likrat kallah peney shabbat nekabelah ki hi mekor ha-berakhah (« Come my beloved with chorus of praise, welcome Bride Sabbath the Queen of the days» [trans'. Hertz, The Authorized Daily Prayer Book]).

Peace does not reign in the world, people are torn with internal struggle which expresses itself in all the exasperation, injustice and social inequality. As we read in the account of the paschal night, the Haggadah, there is no generation in which frequent recurrence of gratuitous anti-Semitism has not masked the ills of society. During the whole of the week the Jew can only hope for the redemption of the world, but according to the teaching of our talmudic masters (Bezah 16a), when the Sabbath comes there is another soul united with his bringing as a gift the perfume of a world already redeemed through man himself. At the end of the evening prayer all hasten to return home for kiddush. At the festive table an ancient chant is sung, Shalom aleikhem malakbei ha-sharet, welcoming the angels of the Most High who, according to a legend in the Talmud (Shabbat 1196) enter the home on the Sabbath, accept greetings and express the wish that all succeeding Sabbaths will be as happy.

After this hymn the father or husband intones the last chapter of the Proverbs of Solomon which begins with the words; Eshet hail mi imme verahok mipeninim mikhrah (« A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels » [Prov. 31:10]). In the book of Proverbs this verse is meant to praise the woman rich in domestic virtues. On Friday evening while all the family is united round the table it is intended to be simply a song expressing the love that the husband, regardless of age, renews with his life's companion, a song that exalts the love uniting them, love that can transfigure every human reaction.

The cup is filled and the blessing over the wine recited, then wine is poured out for all to drink in order of age. The little embroidered cloth covering the Sabbath bread in memory of the manna, symbol of God's providence, is removed, and portions of the blessed bread are distributed. Finally the father blesses his family.

At this moment life should be suffused with an atmosphere of serenity, and each person should try to soften all feelings of passion and impatience that may arise. As they chatter and sing, parents and children are together in this inimitable but so very necessary oasis of peace and mystical rest on the dark and tossing ocean of daily life.

On the morning of the next day, Saturday, the family goes to the synagogue for the religious service of the day. After this, and eventually after the meal, visits to the sick, the lonely and the suffering are strongly recommended so as to bring them words of comfort and the presence of a friend.

Time passes inexorably and soon this enchanting day fades into the first stars of evening. There is a note of sad regret in the Ilavdalah with which we bid farewell to the Sabbath.

Already the new day has begun, the first of our six working days, but the memory of the Sabbath should be an inspiration for our lives during the course of the week, because the sanctification of the Sabbath would be useless if during the other days, as we look about us, we did not recognize our fellowmen as brothers. The sanctification of the seventh day would be useless if we were not convinced, if we failed to realize, that we are here to help one another, to respect one another and to walk the paths of this world together.

Rabbi Kahn is Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Naples and teaches at the Italian Rabbinical College in Rome.


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