Shabbat is a twenty-five hour observance beginning at sundown on the prior evening (Friday) and ending at nightfall on Saturday. It is ushered in with the lighting and blessing of candles at home, a Friday evening service known as Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming of the Sabbath), and a festive family meal. The Friday night meal is inaugurated with an invocation, known as kiddush (sanctification), recited at the dinner table over a goblet of wine, followed by the ceremonial breaking and sharing of a braided, sweet egg-loaf, known as challah. The kiddush begins with the first verses of Genesis 2 that describe God's having "rested" on, and sanctified, Shabbat after having completed the creation of the universe, and concludes with a blessing affirming the holiness of Shabbat.
|1. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
3. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Based upon the highly expansive rabbinical definition of the biblical term for "all labor" (melakha) that is prohibited on Shabbat in the fourth of the biblical Ten Commandments, Jewish law identifies thirty-nine classes of activity that are prohibited on Shabbat. Consequently, in addition to not engaging in any commercial work or handling currency, observant Jews refrain on Shabbat from almost all conventional weekday activities, even the most mundane, such as using electricity, traveling, carrying even the smallest of items in public, writing, tearing, mending, and so forth. Shabbat is consecrated in such a way as to restrict activity to prayer, Torah study, eating, relaxing, and sleeping. However, rabbinical law ordains a broad exception to these severe restrictions when it comes to preserving human life. Interpreting the biblical injunction "to live by the laws of God" as a prohibition against dying, the rabbis insisted that even the most remote risk to human life mandates the violation of Shabbat.
Almost all of these Shabbat restrictions also apply to the first and last "Holy Days" of the three biblical "pilgrimage festivals"—Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot—and to the "High Holydays" of Rosh Ha-shanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). A notable exception is made regarding any labors required for the preparation of and serving of the festival meals, such as the use of fire and carrying.
Pesach is a seven-day spring festival (observed for eight days in the Diaspora) that commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, and celebrates Jewish national freedom more generally. On the first evening in Israel, and the first two in the Diaspora, a festive family feast known as the seder (order) is conducted. The seder meal is laden with a host of symbolic foods—most notably matza, the unleavened bread that was eaten by the Israelites in their haste to escape from Egypt; maror, or bitter herbs that symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery; and charoset, a mixture of nuts, fruit, and wine that is meant to recall the mortar that the Israelite slaves were forced to make. The seder meal is prefaced, accompanied by, and supplemented with an extensive liturgy contained in a prayer-pamphlet known as the Haggadah, which literally means "the recounting" in fulfillment of the biblical commandment to "recount to your children all that God did for us by liberating our ancestors from Egyptian bondage."
In addition to providing precise instructions regarding the rituals and blessings accompanying the seder meal, the Haggadah extensively narrates the historical experience of the Jews since the inception of their faith with the biblical patriarch Abraham, culminating in the celebration of redemption following the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. It concludes with the recitation of Psalms and songs of thanksgiving and celebration. The Pesach seder is by far the most widely observed Jewish ritual, even among otherwise secular or religiously unaffiliated Jews. The national themes of freedom from bondage and persecution, and the elaborate family traditions represented by the seder meal, continue to resonate with many Jews long after they have otherwise abandoned almost all other Jewish religious practices.