JCA Asks: What’s The Deal With Shabbat, Anyway?

In 2016 there were about 45,750 Jews in the state of Minnesota, which is a little less than 1.5 percent of the total population. So if you’re not totally familiar with our traditions and observances, we don’t hold it against. Frankly, Shabbat is one of our most known but least understood holidays. And we’re happy to explain.

Like many other Jewish organizations in town, Jewish Community Action maintains traditional Shabbat observance. Shabbat, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends about 40 minutes after sunset on Saturday, is among the most important ritual observances in Judaism. It’s the only one featured in the Ten Commandments (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”). On Shabbat, Jews don’t have to pray (many do, but observant Jews pray on most if not all days), but we are commanded not to work. That doesn’t mean “work” in the modern sense of going to one’s job – certainly, rabbis and synagogue staff are “working” on Shabbat. The Torah specifically prohibits melachah, which means something closer to workmanship and means creative work, work that exercises control over your environment (more on that later). Melachah includes about 39 categories of forbidden tasks, which in modern times have been translated to include handling money, driving, writing, or using electricity.

Many Jewish organizations and agencies observe Shabbat by ceasing to conduct business on the holiday. At JCA, it’s in our bylaws, and we chose that for a few reasons. First, we’re a Jewish organization – our very mission draws from our values and traditions, and Shabbat is, as we said, our most important, holiest day. Next, we never want to require our staff or our members to have to choose between a JCA activity and their own religious observance. We know that within our membership (and on our staff and board), we have a wide range of observance, and by observing Shabbat, we remain inclusive and welcoming to our entire community.

Isn’t that really frustrating?

Sometimes. Our partners do really interesting things on Saturdays. Sometimes we’re asked to speak on a panel with really exciting people and we have to turn it down. Sometimes emerging injustice happens on a Friday evening and we’re challenged in not being able to respond. Sometimes we’re invited to participate in something designed to be interfaith at a time when our faith prohibits participating, and that’s frustrating. In a world that so often assumes Christianity as the norm, creating space for the holy times of the Jewish calendar can be challenging. But here’s the thing – let’s go back to the meaning of melachah – exercising control over our environment.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “inner liberty depends upon being exempt from the domination of things as well as from domination of people.” We spend the entire week as creators and consumers. On Shabbat, we stop. On Shabbat, we are not workers or bosses. We pull away from hierarchy and capitalism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Shabbat “the most compelling tutorial in human dignity, environmental consciousness, and the principle that there are moral limits to economic exchange and commercial exploration.” For Jewish Community Action, Shabbat exists as a moment of social justice, a time to reflect and to envision what a just world could look like.

One thing to keep in mind: Because the sun sets at different times throughout the year, Shabbat beginning and end times shift. In the winter, we have to stop working earlier on Friday, but we can probably attend your gala on Saturday night. In the summer, Shabbat starts much later on Friday, but by the time the sun sets on Saturday…we’ll just see you Sunday.

Fun fact: Things that are not prohibited on Shabbat include connecting and being in a relationship with other people, walking or simply being in nature, singing (regardless of ability or volume).

So it’s important, then.

Very. Jews are a people who in modern times are often defined more by practice than belief. Living our values is important, and JCA is a Jewish organization. We cherish justice, tradition, and reflection, and observing Shabbat is a meaningful piece of this.

Plus – this was important enough to make it into the Ten Commandments, and consider what that meant at the time. The Jewish people had just been freed from slavery – imagine a commandment not to labor for an entire day. Shabbat is about liberation. Our text has deeply informed our work for workers’ rights, and our instructions about how to observe Shabbat sit alongside our commitment to fair wages and scheduling.

Incidentally, the ancient Greeks called Jews lazy because we insisted on not working every seventh day. Don’t do that.

But some Jews go to things on Shabbat!

They sure do. There are many denominations within Judaism, and even within them, varying levels and interpretations of Shabbat observance. Some Jews observe Shabbat traditionally, but some drive on Shabbat, some run campaigns, and some just flip lights on and off in their homes with wild abandon. You might even see a JCA staffer or member out and about at a partner’s event on Shabbat. They’re just not representing JCA, because JCA observes Shabbat traditionally, by ceasing to do any organizational business. We don’t dictate how our staff (or board or members) practice their own personal Shabbat observance, but their own personal Shabbat observance also carries no implication that JCA is organizationally present.

One more thing about this: As a general rule, it’s kind of bad form to tell a Jew they’re doing their Shabbat observance wrong, unless you are actually that Jew’s literal bubbie.

So it’s like going to church?

Not really. While a lot of Jews do attend synagogue on Shabbat, it’s not required and many observe Shabbat at home with their families. Remember, Shabbat is not about what you have to do, it’s what you cease doing. It’s a day of rest.

What about all the other days you’re closed throughout the year?

Jews have a lot of other holidays throughout the year, some less religious, like Hanukkah, and some very holy. The holiest days are considered Sabbath-like, so they are observed in a similar manner to Shabbat, and JCA also observes those holidays. The Jewish calendar is different than the Gregorian calendar, so those holidays shift around a bit from year to year, but they stay in the same season and arrive in the same order. They all begin at sundown the evening before the holiday “day” and end at sundown that night, and remember, sundown changes depending on the season.

If you’re a faith-based organization (of another religion or faith) and you’re inviting us to participate in your tradition or celebration, which happens to fall on Shabbat or a Sabbath-like holiday, we’re really touched by that and disappointed that we can’t join you. And if you’re a faith partner and you’re inviting us to participate in something you are designing to be intentionally interfaith, we hope you’ll make every possible effort not to schedule this on a day when our faith would prohibit our participation. We’d love to have a deeper conversation about how we can collectively challenge the way Christian hegemony shows up in interfaith work for justice.