What Is Shabbat?

Person cutting Challah on Shabbat

Shabbat, also known as the Jewish Sabbath or “Shabbos,” is the day of rest and worship in Judaism. The word Shabbat literally means “to rest.” One of the most significant traditions in Jewish culture, Shabbat is observed every Friday evening until the following Saturday evening. It is the only ritual commanded by God in the Ten Commandments and is at the core of Jewish identity and has served as the anchor of Jewish continuity for thousands of years. This article provides an overview to this treasured and ancient observance.

Shabbat: The Origin of the Jewish Sabbath

A God-ordained day of rest has existed since the creation of earth. The first ever Shabbat took place in the beginning of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. After six days of Creation, God rested: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:3). Time is the first thing that is sanctified in the Bible, and in declaring the seventh day holy, God was teaching that time is sacred.

Later, in the Book of Exodus, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai. The Fourth Commandment says to remember the day of the Sabbath and to keep it holy. Both of these instructions — to “remember” and to “keep” the Sabbath — have guided Jews for centuries in how they observe the Sabbath. After six days of labor, the children of Israel were to set aside the seventh day as a day to rest and not to do any work. Furthermore, God told Moses that this commandment applied to the children, the servants, the livestock, and foreigners living in their towns. “Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11).

The Meaning of Shabbat

More than anything else, the Sabbath is a sacred point of connection with God. It is a time to disconnect from the stresses and distractions of everyday life and focus on relationships — with God, with family, and with the community. The Sabbath day is a reminder of the importance of rest and taking a needed break from our daily tasks. It gives the space and opportunity to focus on what truly matters each week and to reset priorities. It also celebrates Jewish tradition and deepens the connection with the Jewish community and heritage. The Sabbath — having one day a week for rest and contemplation — is one of the greatest gifts that Judaism has given to the world.

How Jews Observe the Sabbath

The Hebrew word Shabbat is translated as “rest” or “ceasing to work.” A major part of observing the Sabbath involves abstaining from creative work, just as God did on the seventh day in Genesis. The Bible actually mentions 39 categories of activities that Jews refrain from on the Sabbath. But as Jewish scholars point out, the prohibitions are not intended to be limiting, but rather to allow people the liberty to spend time with family and friends and engage in prayer and Bible study. There are several rituals that happen during the Sabbath, including the lighting of the Shabbat candles, reciting traditional blessings, sharing family dinners on Friday night and Saturday, and attending a Shabbat morning service at synagogue.

Yael Eckstein and her daughters light the Shabbat candles.
Yael Eckstein and her daughters light the Shabbat candles.

Lighting the Shabbat Candles

Somewhere between 18 minutes to an hour before Shabbat begins, two candles are lit in observance of the Sabbath. The candles are believed to have a few different representations. One is that they represent the two commandments to remember and observe (“keep”) the Sabbath. Others believe that one candle depicts darkness while the other depicts light. Whatever the belief, lighting the candles officially ushers in the Sabbath each Friday, and blessings are recited. The lighting of the candles is traditionally carried out by the woman of the household.

What Is the Shabbat Dinner?

Jewish families and friends gather at the beginning of the Shabbat evening to pray and share a meal. It’s a joyous time of fellowship at the end of a long work week. The evening begins with the singing of the song Shalom Aleichem (“peace be upon you”) as everyone gathers around the table before dinner.

The meal begins with traditional songs, a blessing over the children, and then the reciting of the Kiddush (sanctification), which is a Jewish blessing and prayer traditionally recited by the men over a full cup of wine. After the Kiddush is recited, the wine (or grape juice) is passed around for others to drink. In some families, the husband recites the words from Proverbs 31:10-31 to honor his wife as an eishet chayil¸ or woman of valor.

Kiddush cup held as blessings are read for the beginning of Shabbat.
Kiddush cup is held as blessings are read for the beginning of Shabbat.

Then it’s time for the delicious challah bread. Challah is a braided egg bread traditionally eaten during Jewish ceremonies, including Shabbat. After the Kiddush, there is a blessing for the challah that’s called Ha’Motzi. The blessing’s name translates to “who brings forth,” and the blessing recognizes that God provides the bread from the earth. The bread is broken into pieces, dipped into salt, and given to each of the guests to eat. Following the Kiddush and the breaking of the challah, the meal is served for everyone to eat.

Traditional Sabbath Dishes

Every Shabbat meal is different for Jewish families all over the world. However, there are many food staples that have made their way to the Shabbat table for generations. The Sabbath meal usually consists of three courses, including appetizers, main entrees, and desserts. Some of the well-known classic dishes include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket, and kugel.

Sabbath meal on the table with the challah bread.
A Sabbath meal on the table with the challah bread.

However, these foods are more common amongst European Jews. There are also a variety of traditional Sabbath dishes originated by Jews from different parts of the world. For example, Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jewish cuisine uses a variety of beans, lentils, and rice in their traditional Sabbath dishes. The meal concludes with a sweet dessert that is typically pareve, meaning it doesn’t have any dairy or meat products, following the Jewish kosher laws of not eating meat and dairy together.

When Shabbat Begins and Ends

Time in Judaism is based on both the sun and the moon. Each day starts from one evening and ends the following evening. So as the sun dips into the horizon, a new day has begun. This is rooted in Genesis: “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day” (1:5). As a result, Shabbat begins every Friday at sunset and ends the following Saturday at sundown.

Sunset in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City.
Sunset in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City.

Since the sunset happens at a different time each day due to the tilt of earth’s axis, every Shabbat starts and ends at a different time. Numerous websites provide the exact time Shabbat begins each week so that families will know when to light the candles and begin observing the Sabbath. As expected, in the winter months when the days are shorter, the Sabbath begins earlier, while in the summer months as days lengthen, it starts later in the evening.

Shabbat Restrictions

There are numerous laws that are followed by observant Jews during the Sabbath. Most of these laws are gleaned from the actions that went into building the Tabernacle and creating the many ritual objects used in worship there. Instead of diving into the complexities of these laws and how they are observed, we will provide a few common restrictions that are followed during Shabbat.

  • No working: Observant Jews refrain from engaging in any form of creative work, including building, writing, and sewing.
  •  No lighting or extinguishing fire: The act of kindling or putting out a fire is considered a form of work and is therefore prohibited.
  • No handling of money: Any exchange of money is seen as a form of commerce and is prohibited.
  • No cooking or baking: Cooking is considered a form of work and is therefore not allowed. Observant Jews prepare their meals before Shabbat begins.
  • No carrying or transporting objects: Carrying or transporting objects from one domain to another is seen as a form of work and is therefore prohibited. This includes carrying items in public areas.
  • No tearing: Tearing or ripping paper or other materials is prohibited on Shabbat.
  • No playing of musical instruments: Playing musical instruments is considered a form of work and is therefore not allowed.
  • No household chores: Cleaning, doing laundry, mowing the lawn, or gardening are prohibited.
  • No turning on or off electricity: Using anything that relies on electricity—including lights, radios, television, computers, and alarm clocks—is prohibited.
  • No driving: The burning of fuel and operation of a vehicle is restricted.

These restrictions are designed to help observant Jews honor God’s commandment, take time to rest, limit distractions, and spend time with their families and communities.

Shabbat in Israel

Israel is the only country in the world that almost completely shuts down during Shabbat. Businesses, shopping malls, markets, restaurants, public transportation, and many other nonessential services close their doors in observance of the Sabbath. The weekend in Israel is also impacted by the observance of Shabbat. The standard work week in the Holy Land begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday. This honors the Sabbath by having Friday and Saturday off from work. As a result, the country of Israel embraces the day of rest and becomes a quieter and more peaceful place.

Yehuda market in Jerusalem closed during Shabbat.
Yehuda market in Jerusalem is closed during Shabbat.

What Does ‘Shabbat Shalom’ mean?

Have you ever heard someone say, “Shabbat Shalom?” It’s a Hebrew saying, and it means “peaceful sabbath.” This phrase is used prior to and during Shabbat and wishes others to have a peaceful Sabbath. It’s often used as a greeting at the beginning of a conversation or as a salutation. There’s also a Yiddish and English version that is commonly used—“Good Shabbos.”

 To learn more Hebrew, check out our Hebrew Words resource page.

Learn More About Shabbat

Study the roots and the meaning of the holy sabbath with our Shabbat: A Day of Delight Limmud Study.

Take Our Quiz on the Sabbath

Now that you have read about the Jewish observance of Shabbat, take our quiz to test your knowledge!

Stay informed about issues affecting Israel, the Jewish people, Jewish-Christian relations, receive daily devotionals, and more.