Kabbalat Shabbat means welcoming the Shabbat on Friday night. It makes Friday evening very special for Jewish people – especially Jewish families. The family meal together on Friday is almost a no-excuses obligation. Even for many secular families who have long given up on following God’s laws – getting home for the shabbat is of utmost importance. It’s a hard-wired part of Jewish culture. This post looks at the traditions involved and the reasons why it is so important… and at the effect it has had on Jewish society.
First of all – why does it start on Friday evening? The whole idea of the Shabbat is first mentioned in the creation story, when it describes the days passing like this: “and there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day”. All the days passing are described with the evening first. So they wait until three stars can be seen in the sky, and then the Shabbat is welcomed in.
Not all families will do all of these traditions, but lighting two candles, and sharing wine and bread as part of the family meal are very much widespread.
1) The lady of the house lights two candles and says a blessing over the Shabbat – possibly representing the two sets of ten commandments, which include two different commands about Shabbat – to remember it and to keep it.
2) The father lays his hands on the heads of each of his children and blesses them – a very moving part of a traditional Jewish Shabbat – helping parents to express love and affirmation to their children at this special family time.
3) The family sit down together and the man of the house says the “kiddush” over a cup of wine. This is a blessing of sanctifying the shabbat: “Blessed are you, O God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine”. By the kiddush cup, the two different reasons to treasure the Shabbat are remembered – one is to keep God’s pattern of the seven days of creation, and the other is to remember that they have been rescued from slavery. The kiddush cup of wine celebrates creation and also the wonderful exodus from Egypt.
4) There are traditionally two loaves of “challah” bread that are broken, with this blessing: “Blessed are you, O God, King of the universe, who brings bread from the earth”. The bread is broken, dipped in salt, and shared with the family. There are two loaves in rememberance of the double portion of manna that was provided on fridays so that the Israelites didn’t have to go out to collect it on Shabbat. There is always salt on the table, because in the absence of the temple, the Jewish table is like an altar – and there was always salt on the altar with sacrifices.
4) Sometimes songs and blessings are sung, depending on how traditional the family is – either about the Shabbat itself, and sometimes Proverbs 31 (the wife of noble character) is said or sung in praise of the wife.
5) Thanks for the meal is often said at the end of the meal, with special blessings for each item of food, with the bread and the wine as the central two components.
Remind you of anything?
As you might have noticed, there are many aspects of the Jewish Shabbat that is full of Messianic meaning! Especially as we read in Hebrews that Yeshua himself is our rest, and “entering his rest” is a way of expressing the new freedom of salvation we have in him. When we consider that the Exodus story takes the Jewish people from slavery, through a deliverance by blood and unleavened bread, into covenant with God and then to the promised land, how wonderful it is to see the how Shabbat parallels the coming salvation of the Messiah! The kiddush cup, representing the blood of deliverance, the broken bread of salvation and provision, before “entering the rest” of Shabbat. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
“More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”
I love the traditions which help honour each family member too, especially those which can sometimes not receive so much honour as the others. The Shabbat traditions have helped to keep Jewish families strong throughout the hardest of times, trials and persecutions throughout the two thousand year exile.
In Rome, Jewish slaves were beaten for refusing to work on Shabbat. In Inquisition-era Spain, secret Jews (“marranos”) gathered in underground cellars to light the Shabbat candles and make Kiddush. In fact, it has come to light that there have been families in South America who go to the basement to light two candles on Friday nights, without knowing why until recently… it turns out they were descended from Jewish families who had fled from Spain, and were keeping the Shabbat in secret… so secretly that over the generations they forgot why they were doing it, and were surprised to find out that their ancesters were Jewish! Under Soviet rule, Jews suffered hunger, imprisonment, exile to Siberia and worse for being a “religious parasite” — i.e., one who wouldn’t work on Shabbat. Even in Auschwitz, Jews went to superhuman lengths to sanctify the holy day.
While many other people groups who have been oppressed, scattered and brutalised were broken and crushed by their sufferings, somehow the Jewish people, by clinging to their God-instituted culture, have been kept. In fact, it has been well said that “more than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
Loving the Giver more than the gift
One sad thing that has evolved with time, however, is the glorification of the Shabbat to an almost god-like status. In the Middle-Ages, when Christian persecution of the Jewish people was particularly severe, a poem called “Lecha Dodi”  (come, my beloved) was written about the Shabbat, as if it were a “queen” to be welcomed, and speaking the holy words of Song of Solomon over the Shabbat itself. The Song of Solomon is supposed to be an analogy about the love between God and his people, not about God’s people and the Shabbat. Jesus said that God made the Shabbat for man, not man for the Shabbat. The Shabbat is a holy and precious gift, but cannot replace God himself, and all the honour should go to the creator, not to his gifts.
Of course, all human beings have the tendency to love the (more visible) gifts over and above the One who gives them, but this is idolatry. Take a moment reflect on your own life, and the times when you do it too. It’s a battle for each one of us to keep God at the centre of our love and worship, but without God in first place, things go wrong. We miss his best.
God in his mercy has kept the Jewish people strong, united, and culturally together over the centuries in a way that can only be described as miraculous. Following his wisely given laws and commandments, like keeping the Shabbat, has been their preservation in many regards. But let’s pray that once again, the people of Israel would be filled with desire for the One who gave the commands, and not be satisfied with the commandments themselves. Let’s pray for the revival of his people – for life from the dead! Pray with us for the Jewish people across the world this Shabbat, for revelation and salvation, and that they would truly “enter his rest”. Amen.
 Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5