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What does shabbat mean?

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Shabbat is the original Hebrew word for our English word sabbath. It comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav and means “to cease, to end, to rest.” The word is invariably linked to the seventh day after the six days of creation, and that is how we see it used in the Old Testament.

Shabbat is the most important holy day on the Jewish calendar, though it is kept every week by observant Jews and some others, and not just once a year. God put great emphasis on the Sabbath, as it is referenced in Scripture numerous times, such as in Exodus 20:8–9—“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (see also Exodus 23:12 and Leviticus 26:2). Shabbat was so important that God imposed the death penalty on those who refused to observe it (Exodus 31:15).

Two themes govern Shabbat: to remember and to observe. It is a commemoration of God’s six-day creation of the universe (Exodus 20:8–11) and of being led out of Egyptian captivity (Deuteronomy 5:15). So, the Jewish observer also remembers that freedom comes with following God.

Many people who don’t observe Shabbat associate it only with a cessation of work. But, to the observant Jew, it holds more meaning than that. Shabbat is a time to stop working, but the work ceases so that the devotee can concentrate solely on the spiritual aspects of life.

Jewish law prohibits doing any form of melakhah (“work” or “deliberate activity”) on Shabbat, with some exceptions. Any activities that contribute to personal profit or gain are forbidden. Jewish rabbinical tradition lists 39 categories of acts forbidden on Shabbat: plowing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hide, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object, and transporting an object (between private and public domains, or over four cubits within public domain).

Shabbat, like all Jewish days, begins and ends at sunset (in this case, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), though there are some variations to its observance that may alter the timing of its transition to the first day of the week. With work out of the way, Shabbat observance is unhindered. First, the women of the house light two Shabbat candles, which represent zakhor (“remember”) and shamor (“observe”). Then a blessing is recited no later than eighteen minutes before sunset. This ritual signifies the beginning of Shabbat.

The family attends a brief evening service. They then return home to enjoy a festive, leisurely dinner. The father recites the Kiddush, a prayer that sanctifies Shabbat. The family then typically eats a slow-cooked stew that is kept warm without the use of a heat source, as igniting a fire is prohibited on Shabbat. After dinner, the father recites a birkat ha-mazon (“grace after meals”).

Saturday brings another service, meal, and personal study of the Torah. Shabbat ends at nightfall for most, when three stars are visible. The family then recites the Havdalah, a series of blessings that separates the Shabbat from the rest of the days of the week.

Many wonder why Christians do not observe the Sabbath in a similar fashion, since God put such a strong emphasis on it in the Old Testament. Good Christians have debated this issue for many years, but Scripture settles the matter for us quite simply and effectively: “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Now, this verse does not prohibit the keeping of the Sabbath. It does, however, relegate its observance to the conscience of the individual. Whether or not a Christian feels compelled to observe the Sabbath, it should be done in faith and “as unto the Lord” (Romans 14:8). Observance of the Sabbath should not cause division among believers.

Colossians 2:16 says, “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” Here “Sabbath day” refers to any Jewish holiday, including the seventh day of the week. The main point for the Christian is that we are no longer under the requirements of the Hebrew Law. We are under the law of grace. God’s law is now written on our hearts, and we are now a new creation.

Romans 3:21–25 states, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

The freedom we now have through faith in Jesus Christ permits us to take a rest or worship the Lord on any day we wish, as long as we are not judging our brothers in the matter or using our observance of a particular day as a means to earn righteousness or secure salvation. To be sure, the observance of Shabbat can be honoring to God and beneficial to His children, but it is not a requirement for those who are in Christ.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022