Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
Biblical Foundations of the Sabbath
In the Torah, the roots of the Sabbath can be found in the Book of Genesis (1:1-2:3). God is described as creating the world for six days. On the seventh day this work is ceased. The seventh day is thus set aside as a holy day of rest for God. In the Book of Exodus, this motive is also found. In the episode of the manna, the Israelites are instructed by God to gather enough manna to eat "for that day the first five days of the week." On the sixth day, they are to gather a "double portion" of manna so that they will have enough to eat for that day and for the following day. This prepares them for the seventh day, when they are to rest as God. Moses said the following to the chieftains to explain: “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD.” (Exodus 16:23) All work is thus banned on the Sabbath, to participate in the holy rest of God.
Exodus 23:12 shows the humanitarian motive of the Sabbath. ”Six days you shall do work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that you and your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.” The Israelites thus gave their slaves a gad of rest, so as to remember God’s deliverance of Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This humanitarianism was rather unique in the ancient world. The Israelites unlike the Egyptians or Babylonians were a people who more readily promoted compassion. For example, infanticide, a common practice among even the Greeks and the Romans, was banned amongst the Israelites. This set of ethos was to really take its shape and intensify during the Rabbinic Period, after the Israelites had been defeated and forced into exile by the Babylonians. Before this time, the Israelites had been a rather war-like tribe; King David's empire stretched from the Sinai to the Tigris and Euphrates. The Israelites during this period, were fearsome bunch who went around sacking cities and laying waste to peoples. Keeping this in mind, it is easier to understand the reason all of the wrath exhibited by God in the Hebrew Bible. Once the Israelites are subjugated and the Rabbinnic period commences, there is a whole lot more talk about God's friendly side. This re-sentiment and transvaluation of values can be seen even further in the phenomenon of Christianity.
Rabbinic Foundations of the Sabbath
The Tannaim found it necessary to emphasize the importance of the cessation of doing any kind of work on the Sabbath. They thus sought to formulate laws and regulations that would edify this principle. The Tannaim considered the work that was necessary to build a Sanctuary for God as the type of work that was forbidden by God on the Sabbath. The rabbis thus distinguished 39 different classes of work (avot) necessary for building such a sanctuary. Other types of work that fit under this category, but do not necessarily fit literally the class of work identified by the rabbis are called toledit. For example, watering a plant would count under the avot “sowing.”
In the Mishnah, the Tannaim give a list of the 39 restricted classes of work – these restricted classes of work are known as mela’khah. These laws forbid any action that displays man’s mastery over the world through the constructive activity of intelligence and skill. The Mishnah says that the laws of forbidden work are like "mountains hanging by hairs," for there is little subject matter for this in the scriptures, but the rules are many.
There are many rules that the rabbis added that are not mentioned in the Torah at all. These prohibitions were meant to “build a fence around the Torah,” or to protect people from inadvertently breaking a Biblical law. Practices such as carrying money to a public domain, or riding a horse on the Sabbath are not prohibited in the Bible but are instituted by the rabbis because they lead people to break laws given by God. These restrictions are known as shevut.
There are also regulations against objects that may lead someone to break one of the mela’khah. This prohibition is known as mukzeh or “set aside.” For example because writing is prohibited on the Sabbath, a pen would be considered mukzeh.
It must be noted that rules of Sabbath must be violated if a person’s life is at risk. This emphasizes the original humanitarian motivations for the Sabbath and ensures that all of the rules and regulations to not take away Sabbath essential meaning.
Laws and Customs
Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening. Every Sabbath is commenced with a special sanctification known as Kiddush. Kiddush symbolizes the transition from the regular week to a holy day. It is said over a cup of ceremonial wine at the dinner table on Friday evening. Traditionally, when the head of the household returns from synagogue the table is to be set with a Kiddush cup filled with wine, two loaves of ceremonial challah bread, and two Sabbath candles. One candle corresponds to the passage from Exodus 20:8, to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” The second candle corresponds to the passage from Deuteronomy 5:12, to “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.” The two whole loaves of challah bread are placed on the table to symbolize the double portion of manna granted to the Israelites for the Sabbath. These two loaves are covered by a ceremonial cloth during the recitation of Kiddush, which symbolizes the beginning of Sabbath.
There is a special order of the service at synagogue during Sabbath. The Psalms of David are recited before the evening service on Friday evening. Saturday morning service contains a weekly Torah reading plus a Musaf Amidah. Afternoon service contains a reading from the following service.
Sabbath is closed with a recitation of the Havdalah. This said over the Kiddush cup which is filled with wine. The Havdalah is a “separation” from the holy time of the Sabbath and the regular week ahead. In addition to the Kiddush cup, it is said over spices which are said to restore the soul that is saddened by the departure of the Sabbath. It is important to remember that the Sabbath is considered to be a minor Jewish holiday. During this time people are said to gain an extra soul from God and receive his blessings greatly.
Modern Arguments about Sabbath Regulation
With the advent of modern technology Jews had to adapt their laws which dealt with work as it was during earlier times. For example, the rabbis did not make any laws regarding electrical appliances because they did not exist at the time. At present there are several interpretations that have arisen. For example, Orthodox Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath because of the law forbidding the use of fire and also the law forbidding compelling a gentile to do work (because people have to be working at the power plant). Because of these reasons they will not use a car either. Reform Jews usually do not refrain from using cars or electricity. Conservative Jews fall somewhere between these two. They will drive cars, but only to travel to synagogue. They will use electricity, but on timers set before Sabbath.
Exodus 16:24 prohibits walking on the seventh day. Rabbis never enforced this to the letter. Traditionally this entailed not leaving the house, or "the private domain," aside from going to temple. This was later extended to the city limits, (you could not travel more than 2,000 cubits away). This is known as the tehum shabbat, the “sabbath limit.” Today, for those Jews who are scared of breaking Biblical commandments an eruv is set up as a legal fiction, making the entire city within the “private domain.” This was Jews are not technically prohibited from "travelling" and are also allowed to carry items outside of their household, because the entire town is considered their household. This is usually forbidden. An eruv is set up in many major American Jewish communities, using boundaries such as telephone wires.
also see Shabbat
source: Encyclopedia Judaeica