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The climax of the Jewish week is the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. The holiness of the Sabbath is stressed in the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11), “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath Day unto the Lord thy God.” This commandment has been given deep symbolic meaning and great social significance. It is an everlasting sign between God and Israel: “For in six days the Lord made Heaven and Earth and on the seventh he ceased from work and rested” (Ex. 31:17). The Sabbath day also is a reminder of the liberation from Egyptian bondage. It has served as a lesson to all humankind, proclaiming the need of human beings for a day free from labor and devoted to spiritual matters.

The Jewish Sabbath, likened in song and story to a queen or a bride, has given a touch of royalty to the humblest home. Its joyful family observance is traditionally marked by special prayers, three festive meals, Sabbath songs, and study of the holy writings. Mourning ceases on the Sabbath, and except for Yom Kippur, no fast day disturbs this holy day. The house is cleaned and scoured beforehand and the family dresses in its Sabbath best. Even the poorest householder tries to provide some delicacy for the day. Fish, wine, and the twisted white loaves of bread (hallah) are part of the Sabbath meals.

On Friday evening, the table is set with a white cloth. Two loaves of hallah are placed at one end and covered. Ornamental candlesticks grace the table. All preparations are completed before sundown, at which time the day is ushered into the home by the mistress of the house as she lights the candles and pronounces the proper blessing. In the synagogue, the 45th psalm, beginning “Come let us sing before the Lord,” opens the services. Lekhah Dodi, song of welcome to the Sabbath Queen, composed about 1540 by Solomon Alkabetz follows. On his return to the home, the master of the house greets the two legendary Sabbath angels (who are said to accompany every worshiper from the synagogue) with the chant Shalom Aleichem, “Peace to you, ministering angels.”

From the moment the candles are lit until the Sabbath is ushered out the next evening with the strains of Havdalah, all work is prohibited; cooking, cleaning, business transactions, carrying, excessive walking, traveling, writing, and kindling fires. An entire volume of the Talmud has been devoted to defining and explaining limitations set up in order to safeguard the sacredness of the day and the comfort and well being of the individual. Despite stringent regulations, the Sabbath never was a burden to the Orthodox Jew. It has served as an endless reservoir of spiritual strength to Jews of all ages.

Each Sabbath has its special section of the Torah, to be read during the morning service along with the appropriate Haftarah. Shabbat Bereshit, immediately after Sukkot, begins the annual cycle of Reading the Law. A number of other Sabbaths are given special designations for one reason or another. On Shabbat Shira in the winter months, the portion Beshalah (Ex. 13-17) containing the famous Song of Moses and the Children of Israel, thanking God for their deliverance from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, is read. Shabbat Hagodol is the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover. Shabbat Hazon (Sabbath of the Vision), read before the 9th of Av, and Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Consolation), read directly after the 9th of Av, take their names from the Haftarah read on these Sabbaths. Shabbat Shuvah (Sabbath of Repentance) appropriately occurs between the New Year and Yom Kippur.

On Sabbath afternoon during the summer months, chapters from the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot) are studied and discussed. Similarly, a special group of psalms, beginning with Borki Nafshi, are recited in the winter time.

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