What is the “holiness” of the Shabbat?

Although like many people I’m aware of the fact that according to Judaism the Shabbat (Sabbath) is “holy”, it was only recently that I acquired what I believe is a more insightful meaning of this seemingly basic Jewish concept. Before I can share this idea however, I first need to briefly clarify the Jewish meaning of “kadosh“, the Hebrew word for “holy”.

In Hebrew, when something is “kadosh” it means that it has been set aside or separated from similar items and designated for a specific purpose. Thus, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, an item that a person dedicated for the needs or upkeep of the Temple was called hekdesh (a derivative of the same 3-letter Hebrew root koof-dalet-shin that forms the word kadosh). Or using the same 3-letter root in modern Hebrew one says “ani rotzeh le-hakdish zman le ….” (“I want to set aside time for …”). Or in a Jewish wedding ceremony this same 3-letter root appears when a man says to a woman “Harei at mekudeshet li” (“Behold you are betrothed to me”). In other words, with this brief declaration a woman has been removed from the realm of potentially belonging to everyone (or to no one) and instead has been set aside and designated for one specific man (I realize this may not sound politically correct to some people but this is the meaning). These are just a few examples but hopefully they have sufficiently clarified the Jewish meaning of “holy” (or “holiness”).

With this behind us we can proceed. According to Judaism, G-d has assigned holiness to:

  • a certain place – the Temple in Jerusalem (beit ha-mikdash) or more broadly to the Land of Israel (eretz yisrael)
  • a certain people – the Jewish people (am yisrael, sometimes referred to in the Torah as “am kadosh” – a “holy nation”)
  • a certain time – the Shabbat

Once again, by holiness we mean being set aside and designated for a specific purpose.

Regarding the designation of holiness for a certain place (eretz yisrael) and a certain people (am yisrael), this is clear if one understands the biblical meaning of the Jewish people becoming “a light unto the nations” and how the fulfillment of this unique role is dependent upon the Jewish people being a sovereign nation in their land (if not, please see “Only in Israel“). But how are we to understand the designation of “holiness” for a certain time (the Shabbat)?

Although much has been written on this subject, something from the siddur (prayer book) recently caught my attention and provided me with what I believe is a very clear answer to this question. As part of the Friday night service we say:

Ata kidashta et yom ha-shvi’i lishemcha, tachlit ma’aseh shamayim ve-aretz

(“You sanctified the seventh day for Your Name, the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth”).

The common way of understanding the latter part of the sentence (“the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth”) is that it’s referring to the Shabbat (“the seventh day”). Hence it should come as no surprise that from such an understanding many observant Jews make the logical conclusion that what we should desire more than anything else in life is to have a day of rest from the weekly trials and tribulations so that we can be free to learn Torah all day long. Although this is certainly nice and very admirable, I don’t believe this is the message that the sentence is conveying.

I think the true meaning of the sentence is as it’s written: G-d set aside (sanctified) the Shabbat (the seventh day) for His Name. In other words, G-d set aside for the Jewish people a certain time (the Shabbat) during which they can focus on (knowing) His Name, and this, the knowing of His Name and not the Shabbat, is what’s referred to in the latter part of the sentence as being “the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth”.

If this understanding of the sentence is correct, then the setting aside of a certain time in order to focus on “knowing G-d’s Name” (which basically means “increasing one’s awareness of G-d’s presence in the world”) is directly connected to the other two aspects that have been set aside (people and place), since their job of bringing G-d’s light to the world is really just another way of saying “bringing an increased awareness of G-d’s presence in the world”.

The Shabbat therefore is the time for the Jewish people to reflect on the unique role they have been given in helping to bring this increased awareness to the world and to refocus their energy and efforts in fulfilling this role.

One final note. As important as the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, the Jewish people and the Torah are (of course I’m speaking from a Jewish perspective), we should never forget that they are not end goals in and of themselves but rather are the tools to be utilized for the greater purpose of bringing the ultimate goodness to humanity, namely an increased awareness of G-d’s presence in our lives and in our world, which once again is ”the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth”.


A quick follow-up. After this idea came to me, I was thrilled to find a similar explanation in the Hebrew commentary on the siddur by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

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5 Responses to What is the “holiness” of the Shabbat?

  1. Steve Acre says:

    Hi, it was very impressive to read your analysis, but still whether the Shabbat is for rest and learning the Torah, or to focus on Hashem is practically the same thing. The thing that I try to comprehend is what do you do in this life to get other people to be able to live beside each other in harmony?
    I have yet to meet or listen to any Rabbi or a Pastor that can help in this matter. It seems to me that all we have learnt is how to kill more people in a scientific way.
    Thanks for listening

  2. Elisha Mendelson says:

    Please please take this article and post it on my Facebook group: MY and MF in Likud for Jewish leadership please and thank u

  3. Ron Rousar says:

    Yoel, this is the first time I have visited your site. A friend in Jerusalem sent this link to me. Thank you for your deeper thoughts, regarding the focus of meditation on Shabbat.

    Steve, you sound like a caring person and you’ve pose a very important question. The only answer I have found is that men will continue to do what men do and therefore, wars will continue . . . until, one man at a time, we decide to take a stand against our own self-centered human nature and begin to be changed into a reflection of Him. In my case, this didn’t happen until I purposed to, set-apart Holy Time to, set my mind on the numerous facets of His Holy Name, which together clarify who He is and what He has created us to be like . . . In other words, when one person is willing to change one, albeit small, but very important part of His creation, the whole creation itself is changed significantly and begins to reflect His Glory . . . And, when one actually walks, in His Glory, others, even one or more Rabbis and/or Pastors might decide to walk along with you, toward Him. It is the Biblical principle of multiplication of good overcoming evil, which is the only real transformation of His creation back into the glorious intent He had and still has in mind for it . . .

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