Understanding Shabbat as a Spiritual Practice

Ask most Jews what the holiest day of the year is and assuredly the answer you will most likely hear is “Yom Kippur.” While Yom Kippur is certainly a very holy day, did you know that within the Jewish tradition there is also a deeply-held conviction that each and every Shabbat is the holiest day of the year? This is why Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is also referred to as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Every Shabbat, Jews practice traditions that are enriched with spiritual meaning. In this article, let us explore these deeper meanings.

Growing up, you may have asked yourself, “Why do we use white candles on Shabbat?”... “Why are there crowns on the Torah?”... “Why do some people refer to Shabbat as a 'bride'?” To answer these questions, let us turn to the teachings of the Kabbalists, and in particular their “holographic” view of creation. Like a holograph, the Kabbalists believed that what happens to you in your personal life is a reflection of what is also happening on the larger, cosmic scale of the universe. Likewise, the Kabbalists believed that what is happening on the cosmic level has respective effects on each and every person's individual life.

Inspired by the seven days of creation, the Kabbalists sought to live the first six days of the week such that you are an active participant in the world – affecting change as you interrelate with the people and things around you. But, on the seventh day, Shabbat, the Kabbalists aspired instead to allow the cosmos to be the active agent in the relationship. In doing so, on this seventh day the Kabbalists would refrain from their normal activities, instead seeking to become full participants in this “Cosmic Wedding” - the union of Hashem and creation.

As 21st century Jews, we can find a meaningful connection to this concept of a “Cosmic Wedding” through either its mythic, symbolic, or other dimensions. Let us take a closer look at this concept and how it informs traditional Shabbat practices, many of which are still kept today:

1. In the Cosmic Wedding of Hashem and creation, Shabbat is seen as the “bride” . The primary source for this is the book of Genesis. Here, Hashem is said to have vah-y'hal - “finished” the seventh day. Because the root hal or kal is also the root of kallah – "bride," we have the mystical notion that God made a “bride” of the seventh day.

2. With Shabbat as the bride in the Cosmic Wedding of Hashem and creation, one's home serves as the huppah and the site of the wedding reception. This is why on Shabbat there is such great attention given to beautifying the house with flowers and serving a delicious meal.

3. In Judaism, the color white symbolically represents purity. This is why we wear white on Yom Kippur. On a spiritual level, white is also seen as the color of the transformation of the soul. As the Kabbalists participated on Shabbat in the Cosmic Wedding, they sought to achieve a transformation of the soul. This is why Shabbat is a white wedding – complete with white table cloths, white candles, and in some communities the wearing of white clothing.

4. In preparation for Shabbat - the "coming bride," we bathe. Spiritually, we prepare ourselves by seeking to loosen any troubles from the week that cling to our soul, inhibiting our ability to achieve the union we seek.

5. Poetry is used at the thought of “Her,” the Shabbat bride. For this reason, the Song of Songs – an allegory for union and the end of exile and loneliness – is recited.

6. Like a bride, Shabbat comes veiled. The six psalms which are read at the beginning of Friday night services serve to “remove the veils” - veils created from the stress and effort of the other six days.

7. The Shabbat candles are lit eighteen minutes before sundown on Friday night, and there is a spiritual meaning to this as well. As every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, in our search for meaning let us “look at the numbers.” Hai [often spelled chai] – "life" in the Jewish tradition has a value of eighteen. Because Shabbat is a time for the renewal of the soul – a giving of new life – we are given an additional eighteen minutes to accomplish this transformation.

8. Shabbat begins with the lighting and blessing of two candles. According to spiritual tradition, each candle represents a different state of consciousness. The first candle represents what is known by the Kabbalists as Shechinah consciousness – the nurturing quality of spirit that comes through you, filling the activities of daily life with compassion and connection. Unfortunately, this “Shechinah consciousness” is subject six days of wear and tear. This is where the second candle comes in. The second candle represents Kodesh Boruch Hu consciousness – remembrance that you are a part of the vast eternal flow of Being that is the cosmos. The Kabbalists referred to this as Melech - “King.” During the Cosmic Wedding that is Shabbat, the bride meets one who has this Boruch Hu consciousness, the “King,” and as such the bride becomes a Malkah - “Queen.”

9. A sacred phrase is recited before the lighting of the Shabbat candles, l’shem yihud Kudsheh Brih Hu u’Shehinteh, which means "for the sake of the unification of the Holy One Blessed be He and His Shechinah." This phrase is recited because on Shabbat we seek to experience this union, with its healing effects on the heart and soul.

10. At the Cosmic Wedding that is Shabbat, we are the guests. For this reason, we sing L'cha Dodi - “to you my Beloved,” in escorting “the bride” down the aisle to her “King.” L'cha Dodi is the seventh psalm, recited following the six which “lifted the veils.”

11. And then there is you. You serve as the embodiment of Shechinah consciousness – represented by the candle. As such, spiritually, you "continue" down the aisle and towards the ark.

12. When the ark is opened, with it Melech - “King” consciousness emerges. This is represented by the Torah, which is wearing silver crowns. The King awaits union with His Queen – Malkah - your Shechinah consciousness.

13. On Shabbat, we sing Shalom Aleichem. This song serves as an invitation to angels – mahlachei ha sharet, to escort the “bride” into your home or synagogue – the huppah or “bridal canopy.” For the Kabbalists, the angels maintained an esoteric import. In our lives, the angels can be seen as the other guests, congregants or even memories of loved ones.

14. When did the engagement for this Cosmic Wedding occur? After the exodus from Egypt, when “we” were at Sinai.

15. In the synagogue, the wedding continues as you bow for the Borchu prayer, allowing the flow of spirit to pour over you and rise, crowned like the Torah. Your crown is a crown of light - the radiance of the “bride” that is Shechinah consciousness.

16. At every Jewish wedding and so, too, at every Shabbat table is a kiddish cup filled to the point of brimming over with red wine. Just as the wine overflows, so too should joy overflow in our lives. The red wine also symbolizes blood and life energy, giving you the strength to fully participate in this time of renewal for the body, mind and spirit. The blessing made over the cup of wine represents the “vows” - the moment of commitment in the Cosmic Wedding. During services, there is a prayer which commences with the words of regular wedding vows – atah kidashtah - “you are holy [unto me]” which serves the same purpose.

17. Just as at a wedding gifts are given, in the kiddush speech there is mention of gifts received – gifts given during the "royal courtship,” the gift that is creation, the weekly gift of Shabbat, God's gift to the Jewish people for having brought them out of Egypt, and the gift of the Torah.

18. The day of Shabbat is the “wedding day.” Who would work on his or her wedding? So, this time serves as an open space – a womb for the neshama yetairah – the “extra measure of soul” that is said to arrive on Shabbat.

19. Interpretations of the weekly Torah portions created and shared on Shabbat serve as wedding gifts.

20. At the Cosmic Wedding, we also have a reception known as the oneg - “pleasure” given in honor of Shabbat in the form of foods intended to delight after services and on your Shabbat table at home. As it is a mitzvah to prepare food in honor of Shabbat, you can encourage guests to contribute their own dishes.

21. Any wedding reception is replete with toasts to the bride and couple. The Shabbat dinner customarily includes a poem praising the qualities of a fine Jewish wife – the Eshet Hayil. This practice can be modified by having both partners turn to the other and recall special moments of feeling supported during the week. Children are traditionally blessed by their parents at this time as well. Youth can also be encouraged to tell their parents examples of how they felt blessed during the week.

22. A good-bye party for Shabbat and the “wedding guests” can be held, extending Shabbat into the darkness of Saturday night. Referred to as a melaveh malkah - “accompanying the Queen” toward the week with dance and song.

23. Any time after seeing three starts in the sky, or even as late as sundown on Tuesday, you can do Havdalah – the closing ritual for Shabbat.

By looking at Shabbat as a “Cosmic Wedding,” like the Kabbalists, we are able to see Shabbat as a time filled with spiritual meaning, and our celebration of Shabbat as a spiritual practice.