SHABBAT 1 – The Sabbath Day

How goodly are your tents (ohalim), Jacob; your dwelling places (mishkanot), Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

This beautiful, poetic blessing has been uttered at the start of synagogue services for centuries. On closer examination, in connection with God’s annual calendar, it yields rich insights that we can well apply to our personal journey through life.

Both tents and dwelling places are forms of shelter. They are essentially of a temporary nature, as are the corporal bodies we ‘inhabit’ during our life on this earth. The word ‘tents’, ohalim – ohel (singular), is a masculine noun in Hebrew. A tent is a construction that enables ease of movement, e.g., in camping outdoors. A tent carries the ‘masculine’ connotations of forward movement, energy, advancement, hands on action and accomplishment – the “doing” of life. Dwellings, mishkanotmishkan (singular feminine), are more complex structures, intended for more extended periods of habitation. A dwelling place, or ‘home’, carries the more feminine attributes of settled contentment, comfort, warmth, rooted security – the “being” of life.

The tent is a symbol of our need for growth, change and aspiring to a goal; our need to be constantly moving forward in order to avoid stagnation and deterioration. The more permanent dwelling place, on the other hand, reminds us of our need for seasons of rest. We need time to be quiet and settled, time to absorb the growth made and the lessons learned during the effort and energy of the travelling forward. Change and momentum are vital; also needed are the oases of calm, the respite from constant movement.

In the Festival Cycle we see the provision of God of these oases at critical junctures throughout the year and at the start of each month (Rosh Chodesh). In addition, as a golden, shining thread connecting and holding them all together, He set in place the weekly oasis of Shabbat.

The Sabbath is the crown of the week; the first thing in Creation that the Creator called kadosh, holy. The involvement and toil of the workday week are good and healthy and necessary, but then our Father calls us to meet with Him in the quiet sanctuary of His Presence, in a special way, on His holy, set-apart day, Shabbat.

Shabbat reminds us that there are times to rest in God’s Presence and times to act as His ambassadors or representatives in the earth. The consuming driveness of this present age, if not consciously tempered or balanced, results in separation from God, from one another, and even from one’s true self. There is a deep need to make the time to learn to receive the love of God, to love one another in truth, and to love one’s self in healthy self-acceptance. We need quiet times to locate and strengthen our ‘inner sanctuary’ and personally respond to the love of the Father.

With this understanding, let us start our exploration of the Mo’adim with God’s first appointed time on the seventh day of each week…Shabbat.

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So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Genesis 2:3).

The original concept of a Sabbath day was instituted by God Himself at Creation when He saw that all He had made was good and He ‘rested.’ The Hebrew word used in the Genesis account, shin-bet-tav, which also reads Shabbat, literally means ‘to cease.’ He ceased from His work of creation. This unique seventh day, marked by the setting of the sun on the sixth day, yom ha’shishi, was designated by God as holy – kadosh. He appointed this day of Shabbat as a time that was to be set apart for His holy purposes. This informs us that this seventh day of rest is the Creator’s intention for His entire universe, particularly for those “made in His image” whom He loves with a perfect love.

“If you cherish the lights of Shabbat, I will show you the lights of Zion.” (Yalkut Shimoni, parashat Behalotcha, sec. 719)

Two Shabbat Candles

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There are two specific commandments in the Torah regarding the Sabbath that can be remembered and reflected upon as we light the minimum of two lights on Shabbat. We are exhorted in Exodus 20:8 to remember (zachor) – to keep in mind, to center our thoughts upon – the Sabbath day, in order to keep it holy. This alludes to the contemplative aspect of Shabbat, the appreciation of why this day is different. Deuteronomy 5:12, in contrast, exhorts us to guard (shamor) the holiness of the Sabbath day. This connotes a physically active observance; what we do on the Sabbath to protect its holiness and to ensure that it is a day set apart unto God.

The two are closely connected but can be seen to emphasize two perspectives of the God of Israel. Both contexts reference the deliverance from Egypt and the redemption of the enslaved Israelites. God is our personal Redeemer. He also reveals that He is the sovereign Creator of all and both nature and nations are under His control. The two Sabbath lights therefore carry reminders of the Creation and the Exodus; of the God of Israel as both Creator and Redeemer; the One who controls history and who is working out His plan of Redemption – on a universal level and in the individual lives of each of His people.

Sabbath 6A well-known Rabbi always carried two pieces of paper – reminder notes – one in each pocket of his jacket. He considered these the answers for the common afflictions of pride on one hand, and discouragement and depression on the other. He was very well respected for his great knowledge and teaching of Torah and was often venerated and flattered. If ever he was tempted by pride, he would reach into his one pocket and take out the note that read: “You are nothing but dust and ashes!” There were times, however, when he felt discouraged and he was tempted to indulge in self-pity and depression. Then he would quickly reach onto the other pocket, retrieve the note and read: “The whole world was created just for you!”

The two candles also remind us of these truths. On one hand, to Remember that on one hand we are but dust and ashes; as my husband has observed: “Adam was nothing but a glorified mudball!” Yet, on the other hand, we need to Observe, to keep and guard the truth of who we are in Yeshua – a redeemed, beloved child of God!

Indeed, the Sabbath lights radiantly reflect the light of Yeshua, who as the Word Incarnate said:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. “And whoever sees me sees Him [our Father-Creator, the God of Israel] who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 8:12; 12:45-46)

Let us protect the beauty and holiness of the light that is given us in the Lord of the Sabbath; and may it remind you that our Father loves you so deeply that He would have created the whole world just for you!

Unity in the Spirit of Holiness

The beauty of the glow of the candles can evoke another picture. We can envision that the two candles represent God and man – or man and woman – separate entities and yet there is a longing in each for relationship, for unity, for the delight there is to be found in one-ness. There is a longing to be echad (one) – united in a harmonious whole; to experience once again the delight of unity that was enjoyed in Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden.

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The desire of God’s heart, and the aim of His entire plan of Redemption in mankind’s history, is to be in loving relationship with His people, His children.

There is a corresponding yearning in the heart of man – even when it is ignored or unrecognized – for restored unity with our Abba, Father. There is, in addition, a desire to be in loving unity with one another both in the intimate covenant relationship of marriage and on a wider scale with friends, family and community. We long to belong.

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The spirit of a person is the lamp of the Lord. (Proverbs 20:28).

The flickering flames of the candles also reflect the unique and God- breathed human spirit. True unity is forged in and by the Spirit of God. The powerful light of His Presence and truth draws us into relationship with Himself and with one another. When the two candles are lit, the light of the flames is what unites them. In the same way, we are truly united as one in the Spirit of God and in the Light of His Truth.

It is no coincidence, I believe, that the Holy Spirit appeared as flames of fire both at Shavuot on Mount Sinai, where God forged for himself one people from the large multitude He had redeemed from Egypt, and at Shavuot/Pentecost on Mount Zion, where He poured out His Spirit on the disciples of Yeshua. A flame of fire represents the purifying light of His holiness and truth; the glory of His Presence and the revelation of His Word.

The first symbol of God’s Word, in the wilderness Tabernacle and the Temples in Jerusalem, was the menorah that the priests kept lit every day as the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light. The flames were a reminder of God’s Presence and of the fact that He constantly was watching over His Word in order to perform it. This reassurance is relit in our hearts every Shabbat when we light the candles and wonder at the beauty of their radiance.

The seven branches of the menorah are a picture of the week, with the central flame representing Shabbat as the shammash, the servant candle from whose light the remaining six are lit. We trust that the peace and holy light we can experience on the seventh day will sustain us and be reflected through the week days ahead.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes “…the vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the longing for the Sabbath all days of the week which is a form of longing for the eternal Sabbath all the days of our lives.” [1]

In Jewish literature one description of eternity is “Yom she’kulo Shabbat”, the day that is all Shabbat, when at the end of the ages we will move beyond time. Shabbat is designed to remove us from the limitations of time and the constraints of our earthly existence and to enable us to view things with an eternal perspective. On Shabbat we can enjoy a taste of the light, peace, joy and harmony of the eternal Presence of God.

Challah – Bread of Life

There are many “doubles” or sets of two in connection with Shabbat. Traditionally, two challot (special, braided bread) adorn the Sabbath table. This relates to God’s sovereign provision of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites were instructed to collect a double portion of manna on the morning of the sixth day, enough to feed their family on the sixth and seventh days. The manna was such that it only lasted from morning to morning. Miraculously, the manna collected on the sixth day would stay fresh through Shabbat until the morning of the first day. The challah, then, serves to remind us today that although He works in more subtle ways, the Almighty is still our Provider.

Another element in the pattern of twos is to be found in ourselves…the fact that we are both physical and spiritual beings. Necessarily, the week is bound up with all the physical demands of life and living, which are good, but the gift of Shabbat is its ability to free us from the narrow confines of materialism. We are invited to enter the endless dimension of the spiritual. It is designed to enable us to shift our focus from the world of physical creativity and to enfold ourselves in creative spiritual awareness; to move as Heschel says “…from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” [2] I would add, “…from [the goals of] the world of creation to [the Goal] of the creation of the world!”

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When placed on the table, the challah is covered with a special cloth – there are many beautiful challah covers available or, if you are so gifted, you can make your own. In Jewish tradition the blessing over the wine is done first, so in order that the challah not feel ‘slighted,’ or of lesser importance, the bread is modestly covered until it is brought forth at the time for its blessing.

Also according to tradition, salt is sprinkled on the challah when it is served to indicate that it is representative of a covenant offering (Leviticus 2:13).

Wine – Cup of Joy

The Friday night Kiddush, or blessing over the wine, begins with the words: Yom ha’shishi va-yekhulu hashamayim… “On the sixth day completed were the heavens…”

Interestingly, the first two Hebrew words, yom hashishi, “the sixth day,” close the first chapter of Genesis, the chapter describing the creation of the world. The second two words, va-yekhulu hashamayim, “completed were the heavens,” are the first two words of the second chapter, in which God rests from the labor of creation.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi points out that “only on Shabbat does the acronym of these four words – YHVH – become joined together to complete the holy name of God. [3] This is another little reflection of the end of days, when time will give way to the “Day that is all Shabbat” – that glorious day when “His Name will become one”!

And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and His Name shall be one (Zechariah 14:9).

Shabbat or Sunday?

The Christian observance of ‘The Lord’s Day’ on Sunday has much in common with Shabbat. The first disciples and followers of Yeshua attended synagogues on Shabbat (e.g., Paul, Acts 18:4). Gentiles who had come to know the God of Israel through the “good news” – the evangelion (Gr.) – and were thereby “grafted in” to the olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:24), were exhorted to attend the communal services on Shabbat, “…where Moses [the Torah] is read every Sabbath” (Acts 15:20) in order to learn more of God’s Word and His ways.

We know that the first disciples, the “early Church”, adhered to Shabbat and the biblical calendar. The question is raised, “When was the present day Christian ‘Sunday’ instituted as the day of worship?” The first law commanding Sunday rest was issued by the Emperor Constantine in March, 321A.D. His decree was worded: “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in the cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.”[4]

In the year 386 A.D. under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, Theodosius I forbade litigation on Sunday and established the practice: “No person shall demand payment of either a public or private debt [on Sunday].”

Theodosius II, in the year 425 A.D., forbade all amusements, both circuses and theaters on Sunday. [5] Gradually all quarters of Christianity transferred observance of the day of rest from the seventh day to the first day. Today most Christians are of the attitude, “What difference does it make? A day is a day.” The answer to that lies in the heart of each individual in the framework of their communion with God.

Following the removal of the followers of Jesus from the Jewish community and the Hebraic framework of worship, a schism was created that would prove to be ever-widening through the centuries that followed. However, certain elements of the “day of rest” would endure and the central goals have remained similar for Christians and Jews alike. The Sabbath is a day to focus on the Almighty, to seek His face and purposes; also to set aside the regular activities and concerns of the week to worship communally and to find refreshment and, if possible, to spend time with family and friends.

This was a day that was observed nationally in Western Christian culture, just as the Shabbat is in Israel today. It saddens one to observe that the modern popular culture, with its focus and emphasis on materialism and the physical dimension of life, and 24/7 commercialism, has forfeited and ignored the gift that God has provided for both spiritual and physical health – the Shalom of Shabbat.

~Keren Hannah Pryor

Footnotes:

1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, The Noonday Press, NY, 1951, 90.
2. Ibid, 10.
3. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish with Feeling, The Berkley Publishing Group, Penguin Books, NY, 2005, 35.
4/ Mark A. Finley,The Almost Forgotten Day, The Concerned Group, Inc., Siloam Springs, AR, 1988, 46.
5. Ibid, 46.

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