The Importance of Shabbat
Shabbat is the crowning glory of God’s creation. It is the closing kiss of Genesis, chapter one and the opening embrace of Genesis, chapter two.
Shabbat is one of the rarest gems of Judaism; a gift to a world consumed with doing, with business, with never-ending tasks and chores. It offers spiritual refuge and rejuvenation, uplift and introspection.
Origin of Shabbat
The origin of Shabbat observance is found in the book of Exodus, in the fourth utterance, which commands us to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of Adonai, your God: You will do no work, not you, nor your son, your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that lives within your gates…” – Exodus 20:8-11
Nothing in this statement, however compassionate and humane its message may be, prepares us for the beauty and the spiritual dimension that is Shabbat as we know it today.
We owe our current understanding and, indeed, expectations of Shabbat to the mystics of Tzfat, a small village on the northern slopes of the upper Galilee, who transformed Shabbat in the sixteenth century.
Strictly speaking, it was the Kabbalat Shabbat – the welcoming of Shabbat – which the mystics focused on. This newly expanded and developed element of the Shabbat observance precedes the evening prayers – the Ma’ariv – for Shabbat.
This extraordinary group of poets, visionaries, teachers and scholars, all of them mystics, formed a group, a club, if you will, which they named Sukkat Shalom – the Shelter of Peace. They each had individual practices for welcoming Shabbat: some wearing all white; some engaging in ecstatic dancing and singing; many going out to the forest above Tzfat to commune with nature and actually hug the proverbial trees.
The true transformation of Shabbat occurred around the introduction of L’cha Dodi, the hymn of hymns for Shabbat. The hymn, authored by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who intended the hymn as a means to heal the world and bring about the advent of Mashiach – the Messiah – became the anchor of Kabbalat Shabbat. Six “Psalms of Coronation,” psalms 95, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 29, were placed leading into L’cha Dodi, with psalm 92, A Hymn for Shabbat, concluding the journey from the mundane to the ethereal, from the weekday to Shabbat, from exile to redemption.
The most important theme to keep in mind as we read the liturgy is that of balance: balance between the feminine and the masculine; between the light and the dark; between heaven and earth. This was the genius contribution of Alkabetz, The Ari, Cordovero, Azikri, Vital and the other saints of Tzfat – Safed. It is they who turned the Shabbat services to a marriage between the feminine and the masculine writ large, in heaven and on earth.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, a mere fifty years or so following the introduction of L’cha Dodi, Shabbat observance was universally transformed throughout the Jewish world, its general structure and intent still with us in the twenty first century.