One of the most cherished mitzvot in the Torah that seems to have a restrictive component is Shabbat. However, a person who reflects upon it honestly will discover that besides its spiritual greatness (which we’ll soon discuss), the mitzvah of Shabbat also possesses a physical counterpart that provides great pleasure in this world. Anyone who observes Shabbat according to Jewish law will derive much benefit from it in his life.
Here are five benefits that Shabbat offers:
1. A therapeutic peacefulness and renewal of daily life
2. Pleasure from Shabbat-oriented activities
3. Family togetherness
4. A significant increase in quality time with the children
5. On a mystical level, blessing for a good livelihood
The fifth benefit corresponds to the spiritual root of Shabbat, while the first four correspond to the pleasure derived from the Shabbat activities themselves, as explained below.
Shabbat is a wonderful example of how restrictions can engender happiness. Limiting the performance of certain actions, despite the strong urge to perform them, will create a powerful concentration of pleasure.
This idea provides an explanation to many of those who ask in wonderment: How is it that when a Shabbat observer talks about Shabbat, his face radiantly glows with joy and longing? After all, most things that are permitted on weekdays are forbidden on Shabbat! So what is the purpose of Shabbat—to restrict or to gratify?
In order to gain a better understanding of what a true Shabbat experience looks and feels like, let’s pose as invisible guests and enter the home of an authentic Jewish family.
Friday is finally here. Shabbat preparations are in full force and everyone’s favorite dishes are ready for the festive meals.
The sweet and comforting blend of aromas is in the air, as the final preparations create an especially unique atmosphere. A beautiful white tablecloth covers the table upon which the warm Shabbat challot are placed atop an elegant tray covered by an ornate cloth.
The members of the household are now dressed in their finest attire as the candles are ready to be kindled…even the hot plate is standing in position as pots rest on its surface. The lights of the house and other electrical devices are also ready for Shabbat, as they were precisely programmed to give human intervention its weekly break.
Candle lighting time is fast approaching. Final preparations and arrangements are underway. The anticipation of Shabbat and the challenge of completing all the tasks in time is exhilarating. A Shabbat siren (commonly sounded in ultra-Orthodox communities) is heard and it’s time to light.
All that tension is released in one shot.
After the mother completes her heartfelt prayer for the well-being of her husband and children, she opens her eyes and glances at her young children with a warm and peaceful smile as they look up at her with curiosity. “Shabbat shalom,” she says in a melodic tone as she gives each one of them a warm and loving kiss.
An overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility ensues. The father and the boys are in the synagogue while the mother is home with the little ones. Since all media is silenced and the phone is fast asleep, she finally has a chance to relax and pay attention to her children’s amusing stories and playful anecdotes.
A feeling of love and warmth encompasses the entire house.
Suddenly, a knock is heard and the door opens. “Shabbat shalom!” exclaims the father with a radiant smile. Could it be that this is the same man who works so hard during the week just to make a living? The man who had just entered has the presence of a king! That’s the unspoken feeling that creeps into the heart.
Everyone quickly gathers for Kiddush as the “Shalom Aleichem” verses are sung in unison:
Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He…
Bo’achem leshalom… May your coming be in peace…
Barchuni leshalom… Bless me with peace…
Beshivtechem leshalom… May you rest here with peace…
Betzetchem leshalom… May your departure be in peace…
And now everyone, young and old, moves on to the ultimate song of praise for the wonderful wife and mother who sacrifices to build her home with wisdom and with love:
An accomplished woman, who can find far beyond pearls is her value.
Her husband’s heart relies on her and he shall lack no fortune.
She repays his good, but not his harm, all the days of her life…
Her children arise and praise her, her husband, and he lauds her.
Many daughters have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all.
False is grace and vain is beauty, a G-d-fearing woman—she should be praised.
Give her the fruits of her hand and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds.
The sacred Kiddush moment has come. As the wine glistens inside the silver cup, the father stands up to recite the blessing—an air of inspiration embraces everyone present.
Blessed are You, Hashem…Who creates the fruit of vine.
Blessed are You, Hashem…Who favored us and gave us His holy Shabbat, in love and favor, to be our heritage… Blessed are You Hashem, Who sanctifies Shabbat.
Even the sounds of the crying baby cannot disturb the magical aura of this holy moment. All hearts are intertwined.
Next comes the Shabbat feast with its array of dishes, Shabbat songs, and lofty conversations that do not drift into mundane matters regarding money, work, and everyday troubles. After all, it is Shabbat today, as the verse says, “You will honor it by not seeking your own needs or discussing the forbidden,” as discussions about money and business are prohibited on Shabbat and should be replaced by meaningful stories or inspirational ideas from the weekly Torah portion.
Amid the backdrop of songs, games, and questions and answers from the weekly Torah portion, the three-and-a-half-year-old is given an opportunity to present the letters that he learned in school that week, while the five-year-old is proud that he already knows how to read. A fight between the two little siblings puts the father in the peacemaking position, because today there’s no stress—everyone has time.
It’s finally time to recite the Birkat HaMazon, (the Grace after Meals) in a calm and peaceful manner, as no one is rushing to leave. There are no distractions.
Once the Friday night meal is over, everyone finds an enjoyable activity to partake in. Stimulating conversations, visits by foot to friends or relatives, a stroll around the neighborhood, learning with the children, attending a Torah lecture, or any other pleasant pastime is peacefully enjoyed.
In the morning, prayer services are attended, which include the reading of the Torah portion. One portion every week adds up to a large yearly sum of Torah portions that culminates in the annual celebration of the completion of the Five Books of the Torah.
The morning Kiddush is then recited as the Shabbat feast commences. Songs, discussions, and insights once again enjoyed…then the Grace after Meals blessing is recited…followed by the sweet Shabbat nap—as Shabbat is an acronym for “sleep on Shabbat is a delight.”
Following the nap, many activities may take place in or around the house. Parents playing with their kids or having a pleasant conversation among themselves, taking a relaxing walk, reading, attending an interesting Torah class, making a Shabbat party for the kids, and so on. Before you know it, it’s time for the afternoon prayers, a light third meal, the evening prayers, and Havdallah.
During Havdallah, we recite blessings over wine, a candle, and aromatic herbs. After all, it’s difficult to transition from the elated spiritual state of Shabbat to the mundane weekly routine. We therefore smell sweet scented herbs to soothe our spirit.
Anyone who lives this way, or in a similar way, even if he does not live in a Shabbat-observant community, will not understand the question: Don’t you feel restricted on Shabbat? Even though it’s true that there are things I do during the week that I cannot do on Shabbat, the restrictions are well worth my while, as they create the uniquely magical environment of Shabbat in much the same way that the rules, restrictions, and etiquette of Buckingham Palace contribute to its royal ambiance.
So when friends of a Shabbat observer ask him, “Don’t you miss driving to the beach on Shabbat?” We can now understand why he smiles at them with sympathy for asking such a question, thinking that it’s like asking if he’d exchange his royal crown for a bowl of lentil soup. As delicious as the soup may be, he would give it up without hesitation knowing there’s something much more precious and valuable awaiting him.
We must remember that the restrictions of Shabbat are not consistently forbidden. Anything that’s forbidden on Shabbat is permissible during the week. A person who wants to start observing Shabbat can most certainly change his plans and affairs to Friday or another weekday if he so desires, because as a testament of faith in the Creator of the world, we are required to refrain from work on this special day.
Anyone who reflects upon the way in which a true Shabbat observer celebrates Shabbat, will quickly understand that after a twenty-four-hour resting period for the soul, the Shabbat observer will go out into the workweek with an invigorated spirit. After all, he is resting his mind and body like a person resting in a hotel every seventh day of his life—without worrying about food preparation, as the food is already prepared on the Shabbat hot plate. He doesn’t have to worry about washing the car or gardening, as this was already done on Friday, nor does he have to worry about laundry or any other household duty, as that too will be taken care of when Shabbat is over. He doesn’t even have to worry about getting up to flip on the light switch because the timer is programmed to do that for him.
He’s also exempt on the seventh day of every week in his life from the tensions of the media, the phone, and the tiring conversations about money and business. This kind of person is like a king for a day. It comes as no surprise then that after several days, by the time Wednesday rolls around, he’s already longing for Shabbat. He anticipates it and awaits its arrival.
The lofty spiritual significance of Shabbat is explained in many places in the holy Zohar. Here is one explanation:
On this day [Shabbat], all the souls of the righteous indulge in the delights of “atika kadisha stima dechol stimin,” and a spirit that is drawn from the delight of “atika kadisha” (the extra soul a Jew receives on Shabbat) spreads throughout the realms. It goes up and down and runs back and forth, spreading to all of the holy members of the people of Israel who observe the laws of the Torah. This extra spirit gives them a restful break, while all the upper indignations and harsh judgments are forgotten and annulled.
The Shabbat observer’s livelihood is also blessed on Shabbat, as it says, “G-d blessed the seventh day.” He embedded in it a quality of blessing and abundance for those who properly observe it. The holy Zohar explains that the days of this world correspond to the upper days of the spiritual realm, and the upper seventh day infuses the rest of the six upper days with abundance. That is where the abundance of the six days of Creation descends from (this can be likened to a central well that fills up six pools around it with a stream flowing out of each of one for the benefit of mankind).
Here are the words of the Zohar:
It is written: “G-d blessed the seventh day” and it says in the portion of the manna, “Six days shall you gather it [the manna], but the seventh day is Sabbath, on it there will be none.”
This is unclear. Here we are told that food will not be found on this day, so how is it a day of blessing? However, we have learned that all the blessings in the upper and lower realms are contingent upon the seventh day. Why was the manna not found on the seventh day? Because all the other upper days receive their blessing on that day, and each day provides sustenance down here on earth by virtue of the blessing it received on the seventh day. (This is why the manna did not descend to our world on the seventh day—because the only job the seventh day has is to give blessing and abundance to the rest of the days. The food that is eaten on Shabbat comes from the abundance that flows down to this world during the other days of the week.)
The sages of the mystics have elucidated that the number 6 is an expression of the physical world of nature, which is limited to six sides. Everything physical has six sides; east, west, north, south, up, and down. The number 7, however, expresses the spirituality that’s contained inside the physical—like a soul inside a body. Just as a soulless body deteriorates and fades away, so too money that is created during the six days of the week, by someone who does not observe the Shabbat laws in the proper way, is money that has no inner spirit and thus will have no true purpose. This idea is expressed by the profound words of the Kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz in his famous liturgical poem, “Lecha Dodi”: “To welcome the Shabbat, let us progress, for that is the source, from which to bless…”
Shabbat is the source from which all weekdays are blessed, as the above Zohar explains. It is important to mention that the blessing for a good livelihood is not for a higher income per se, but for gaining the highest level of spiritual and material benefit from one’s current income. The monetary wealth that belongs to the Shabbat observer is physical currency with a spiritual enlightenment that generates positive abundance. For further reading on this topic, refer to the letter zayin in HaTzofen.
Adapted from “The Keys to Life” by Rabbi Zamir Cohen