Shabbat: Theory and Practice

Since Shabbat is one of the biggest and most fundamental aspects of Jewish ritual observance (and the Jewish calendar), we will be devoting two class sessions to the topic.

Our first session will be devoted to the theoretical underpinnings of Shabbat.  You can find the handout for this session here.

We will discuss the role of the Creation story in the establishment of the institution of Shabbat.  As God rested on the 7th day, so too do we.  (This is a perfect example of the religious concept of imitatio dei.)  In connection with all of this, we'll begin to explore the important role the Creation story has in Jewish mythology.  (Mythology in the sense of stories that every culture/civilization weaves for itself, attempting to explain the great mysteries of life.  A number of contemporary Jewish theologians have suggested that we study Torah through the lens of mythology...most notably: Rabbi Neil Gilman.)

We'll study a little bit about traditional Shabbat observance (not just the prohibition against "work" but all of the sub-activities that our traditional rabbinic interpreters have subsumed under the category of "work" - things like the prohibition against the use of electricity, the prohibition against carry from a private domain to a public one, etc, etc.)  We'll look at Torah and Mishnah texts to help explain how our rabbis made the hermaneutic leap from a prohibition against work to a prohibition against carrying.

Our discussion about Shabbat will also give me the chance to pay tribute to one of my heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel:

You can get a taste for what Heschel was all about by watching this brief video:

All of that is background, so that you can get a sense for the kind of person that could produce the awespiring short book "The Sabbath."  Own it.  Read it.  And aspire to live it.  Enough said.

In terms of how liberal Jews can/should go about making Shabbat a personal and meaningful experience for themselves, I strongly recommend "Gates of Shabbat."  For more advice, please don't hesitate to follow up with me privately.

Looking ahead, now, to our session next week on Jan 18, 2011 dealing with the more practical side of Shabbat observance, when we will have the chance to enjoy a Model Shabbat Dinner together:

We will be discussing the central role that the recitation of blessings play in Jewish ritual life.  To experience this ritual, one needs to have at least some minimal familiarity with the text (the words!) of the blessings that are said.  You can find the text in a book like "Gates of Shabbat" or in the Reform Movement's "On the Doorposts..." (another worthy volume for your Jewish library).

But if you're serious about doing Shabbat on a regular basis, my suggestion is that you invest a little money in a set of "benchers".  "Bencher" is a Yiddish term that refers to the mini-prayerbook that Jews have traditionally used for Shabbat/holiday table blessings.  A traditional bencher contains the text of all the blessings, and includes a number of table songs (in hebrew: zmirot) that are traditionally sung at the table on Shabbat and holidays.  The Conservative movement published one that adheres to traditional style and content.  You can find it here.  More recently, the Reform youth movement (NFTY) published its own bencher, which you can find here.

For what it's worth, I strongly suggest that you begin with this bencher, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Although its song selection is definitely on the limited side, it is an excellent "starter" version - very user friendly, clear transliteration, etc.

This article provides some overview about the content of the Friday night table liturgy.

Do check out this page, where the Reform Movement has laid out a smorgasboard of electronic resources to help you with the "how to" of the Shabbat table liturgy.

We'll discuss the importance of 'elevating the conversation' at one's Shabbat table, and that a great way to do that is for someone (or multiple people!) to share a Dvar Torah (a word of Torah).  An elaborate guide can be found here.


  1. I really enjoyed our Shabbat dinner last week. There are so many aspects that I love, especially elevating the experience and conversation to a more meaningful level. The art of human connection and BEING together can be more challenging in the midst of busy lives. The tradition and practice of Shabbat - just beautiful. And wonderful to be able to make it your own. Candles or no candles. :) - Jennifer

  2. Although I like the covering of the challot explanation given by Rabbi Brown (so it does not feel slighted during Kiddush) I found another explanation that might work as well.
    Many times in Jewish tradition the Sabbath is compared to a bride. Just as the veil of the bride is removed after the blessings under the chuppah have been recited, so are the challot "unveiled" after the blessing is recited and the bread is about to be cut.