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Judaism: The Sabbath, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1194

Essay

Introduction

A variety of holy days are celebrated within Judaism, and each has great meaning for the practicing Jew.  Purim, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashannah each mark important occasions, as they commemorate ancient Jewish traditions and validate the worship.   None of these holy days, however, is invested with greater import than the weekly observance of the Sabbath.   As Christians of various denominations set Sunday aside as a day to devote to rest and worship, so has Judaism traditionally turned to Saturday as Sabbath.   With roots stretching back to the founding of the faith, the Sabbath is very much the cornerstone of Judaism.   It is on this day, every week, that the Jew is exhorted to turn away from material pursuits, contemplate and appreciate the great work of God, and devote hours to family and loved ones, as well as reflections of the faith itself and life within it.

Tradition, Form, and Meaning

As globally prominent as the observance of the Sabbath is, tracing its beginnings is not clearly done.   The holy day is Saturday, the seventh day of the week in ancient Jewish timekeeping and calendars, yet a seven-day week does not properly match up to either a solar or lunar calendar.   It has been suggested that the seven-day week originated in ancient Babylonian customs, but this has not been proven.   As with Christianity as well, there is no single, recorded date on which observance of the Sabbath began.   As old as the Bible’s injunctions in the Pentateuch, or Torah,  Sabbath observance, as with Christian ritual, almost certainly preceded the books laying out the rituals.   All that can be known with certainty is that, in accordance with biblical texts and with Christianity itself, the day is selected because God rested from his labors of creation after six days, and it is most probable that the Sabbath first came into being in ancient Israel  (BEP, 2011,   p. 170).

In terms of ceremony, the Sabbath is meant to be followed in a set fashion.   It commences with the setting of the sun on Friday evening, for after that point no Jew may engage in any work.  Even domestic work within the home should be completed before the Sabbath begins; the day is not viewed as merely a ceasing of labor, but as a holy day to be prepared for, so the work outside and inside the home is viewed as a week-long preparation for the occasion.   At dusk, the observance usually begins with the lighting of two candles, a ritual as old as the practice and conducted in most Jewish homes today.   The candles represent the two commandments in Torah to respect the Sabbath.   Other rituals usually mark the Sabbath experience, and the most common of these is the Kiddush, or blessing, spoken by the father at the head of the dinner table.  Then a goblet of wine is passed around, and there is the cutting of the challah bread at the dinner table.  This is done with prayers, to remind the family of God’s goodness in feeding the Jews when they were dessert wanderers.   Salt is sprinkled on the bread, also as a reminder: in ancient times, salt was expensive, and this action illustrates to the Jewish family its enormous good fortune (Taylor,  2001,  p. 237).   These basic rituals are still very ordinary in Jewish homes.

With regard to actual meaning, the simple fact that the Sabbath is the day set apart for rest is a vital aspect to this.  Work is essential, and Judaism completely esteems it as man’s duty to humanity, as well as service and devotion to God.  However, by deliberately ceasing to work on one day of each week, the Jew is literally honoring the creative strength of God  (Grunfeld,  2003,  p. 17).   In a sense, in this worship practiced on a regular basis, Jews seek to maintain perspective, and humility.   Achievement is pursued for the sake of the family and the community six days of the week, and in commercial venues; on the Sabbath, there is the pause to understand the divine power that both renders this activity possible and emphasizes the relative unimportance of it.

For most Jews, and certainly for the Orthodox sects, Sabbath is less about going through proscribed and ancient rituals than it is about a concept.  It is the idea of Sabbath, rather than its reality as a day set aside, that makes it especially meaningful, for that idea is based upon a focus on the essence of the faith itself (Reuben, Hanin,  2011,  p. 69).   The Sabbath is meant to be observed in an active fashion, rather than as merely a passive easing of labor for a day.

Observance Today

To assert that Jews today, and of any sect, have a more relaxed view of the Sabbath seems reasonable.  Unfortunately, there is no way to truly determine if Jewish observance of the day has become more relaxed because of the intrinsic nature of faith itself.   That is to say, the only real determinant of actual Sabbath observance is a refusal to do any work, and this in no way indicates how meaningful the day actually is to the Jew.   Just as the Christian who attends church on Sunday is revealing nothing about his or her degree of faith, the Jew who keeps the Sabbath may be only conforming to ritual, or habit.    This acknowledged, it has been noted that Reform Jews of more recent generations have embraced a tenet of Judaism, in which performing a mitzvah, or good work, is more important to the faith that maintaining the rules of the Sabbath (Cohen, Eisen,  2000,  p. 97).   In Judaism, work is essentially defined as the activity that creates a livelihood; consequently, the Jew who engages in a marathon run for charity, or assists in building a community shelter on a Saturday, is not necessarily violating the Sabbath.  Beyond this, the mitzvah is regarded as being somewhat excepted from the definition of labor.

In it inevitable that the importance of the Sabbath is as subject to degree as any practice of any faith must be; that is, the meaning relies on each Jew’s sensibilities and feelings regarding the day and their faith.   As is obvious, Orthodox Jews adhere more strenuously to the precepts of Sabbath observance, as more devout and/or active Christians attend to the rituals of their faith in a more pronounced way.   However it is observed, nonetheless, the Sabbath remains a potent occasion in Judaism, one perhaps made more vital by its weekly recurrence.  As was in place in ancient Israel, the Sabbath is held as the day given over to God, and to a greater comprehension of God’s goodness, manifested by a turning away from mercenary pursuits and through a focus on the family.

References

Britannica Educational Publishing (BEP). (2011). Judaism.  New York, NY: Rosen Educational Services.

Cohen, S. M., & Eisen, A. M. (2000). The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Grunfeld, I.  (2003).  The Sabbath: A Guide To Its Understanding and Observance.  Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers.

Reuben, S., & Hanin, J.  (2011).  Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Taylor, I.  (2001). Judaism, with Jewish Moral Issues. Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thomas.

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