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Writing Jewish Characters: Shabbat

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

And it’s time for our last holiday, which isn’t exactly a holiday but is definitely a holy day - Shabbat, aka the Sabbath.

Similarly to Shavuot, the name Shabbat comes from the Hebrew for seven (sheva) and refers to it being the seventh day. Thus, in the Jewish calendar, the week starts on Sunday and ends on Saturday. (Technically, it’s a little more complicated, and if you want the full details, go to my post about Days in Judaism.)

Shabbat is celebrated every week, including when it overlaps with other holidays. It lasts from the beginning of sunset on Friday through the end of sunset on Saturday.

Rules of Observance

As you may know, one of the Ten Commandments is to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Orthodox Jews take this seriously, and follow the “no work rules,” as I like to call them (for full details, go here). For them, Shabbat is a time of separation, with its own routine and patterns.

Non-Orthodox Jews…well, it varies. Some Jews will fully follow the no work rules, as well as do all the observances. Others won’t really care that it’s Shabbat and will go on with their lives as usual. But every single Jew will treat Saturday as the Sabbath, not Sunday – which is the Christian Sabbath. Interestingly, in Israel, the work week starts on Sunday and ends at midday on Friday.

One universal fact is no Rabbi (no matter the denomination) will perform a wedding or a funeral on Shabbat.

So if your character is getting married with a Rabbi as the officiant (or attending a Jewish wedding), that wedding will not be Friday night or Saturday before sunset. It just won’t. This can lead to such things as Sunday weddings, holiday weekend weddings (my parents went to two weddings last Memorial Day Weekend, I’ve had two on Labor Day Sunday in the last four years), and even super late night Saturday weddings (I once attended a wedding that started at 8pm so the Rabbi could get to Brooklyn from Westchester after Shabbat ended). If they’re not Orthodox or super observant, they may still attend a non-Jewish wedding on Shabbat – I did this month actually! – but it won’t be a Jewish wedding.

For funerals, it’ll just get scheduled on Sunday.

We’ll discuss both of those in more detail when I do individual posts on weddings and funerals – which are in the pipeline.

Other than things Rabbis refuse to do, you have to think about how your individual character will react. If your character is Orthodox, you definitely need to include the impact of Shabbat on their lives, but if your character isn’t…well, it still can be helpful to try to figure out which observances they might follow.

I admit, I’ve had some trouble figuring out how to write all this up, because for me (and many Jews) it’s just a part of life. It’s a bit like trying to explain to someone from another planet why we have a seven day week and why Saturday and Sunday are the weekend. So I’m doing my best, but if you have any questions, please ask!

An Orthodox Shabbat:

  1. Mom and older girls prep food before Shabbat starts (they won’t do real cooking on Shabbat, so it has to be done before – non-Orthodox Jews are much less likely to care)

  2. Dad and older boys go to Friday night services (scroll down for more details on synagogue services)

  3. When Shabbat starts, Mom lights the candles and says a blessing. The daughters may or may not join her. For Orthodox Jews, this will often happen while Dad is at synagogue, since it’s a very time-specific ritual – it must be done within about a thirty minute range, depending on sunset time. Non-Orthodox Jews care less – despite official candlelighting happening as early as 4:10 in December and as late as 8:15 in June (in NYC, this will change based on location, and you can find out specific times by going here and entering your location), my family always lit right before dinner, no matter what time that was. But we also have a more religious family friend who will join us for dinner, but light candles at her house at the right time if it’s too early or too late.

  4. Pre-dinner rituals! Besides candle lighting, the four things are 1: saying Kiddush – making a blessing over wine (grape juice for children, pregnant women, and anyone who wants or needs to stay sober), 2: washing hands with a blessing, 3: blessing the children, and 4: Motzi – making a blessing over challah (matzah for the Shabbat(s) during Passover). All blessings are in Hebrew. Period. No matter what language Jews speak at home, blessings are officially said in Hebrew. (They may also be repeated in the native language, but you’re supposed to say them in Hebrew, which is the language of Jewish ritual.) I know in most households I’ve been to, blessing the children is done just after candle lighting, but it can also be done at a couple of other times if you didn’t do the candles as a full family. Non-Orthodox Jews may or may not do any or all of these rituals, with candles/wine/challah the three that are most likely to be performed.

  5. Discussion of alternatives for people with allergies/food issues! If someone is gluten-free, consensus seems to be to make bread out of oat flour, as it’s the one bread grain of the five legal ones (wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt) which is naturally gluten-free. If you can’t do either Kiddush or Motzi, you can to some degree replace each with the other, but that’s not ideal. Worst case scenario, someone else can say it for you.

  6. Dinner. Mmmmm. This one’s going to be pure custom – apart from Kiddush/Motzi, there are zero required foods for Shabbat, unlike most other Jewish holidays. Gefilte fish is common, but it’s definitely not required. My family often did chicken. But it varies. Your characters may have a preferred meal or may not!

  7. Grace after the meal, also known as benching or Birkat Hamazon. This is done to some degree by Orthodox Jews after all meals, but non-Orthodox Jews are most likely to do it on Shabbat (or holidays).

  8. Sleep. There may be family time or reading or such before bed, but that’s it for rules.

  9. Saturday morning starts with services, though of course most families eat beforehand - in the case of Orthodox Jews, cold or pre-cooked food.

  10. Morning services (often attended by the whole family)

  11. Lunch - can be at synagogue or at home, and again, food will be cold or pre-cooked. (My childhood synagogue used to serve a meal, but that really depends on the individual synagogue.)

  12. Rest/relaxation/Torah study in the afternoon - there’s no requirements, but these are the usual. Non-Orthodox Jews may count “rest” as playing computer games if they even try to follow God’s example of resting on the seventh day (aka Genesis). Orthodox Jews may still play games or read for fun – as a kid, I used to hang out with my Rabbi’s daughter, who was observant, and we’d often play card games or make believe during this time.

  13. Afternoon/evening services right around sunset, possibly with a meal in the middle, leading to Havdalah (scroll down to read more about specific services) at the time Shabbat is officially over

Group Shabbat meals are fairly common, particularly on Friday night, and will generally include all of the pre-meal stuff (with the possible exception of candle lighting if it starts too early or too late) and benching. These are often part of synagogue-centric events such as bar/bat mitzvahs, but are also common at colleges among Jewish student groups. If an event is happening on Saturday evening (such as a Saturday afternoon bar/bat mitzvah), there is more likely to be a meal served as part of that service.

Orthodox Jews will often separate acts by gender. Women light candles, men make blessings over wine. Women cook, men attend every synagogue service.

Non-Orthodox Jews have less restrictive rules on who does what, but there are still trends – I know more women who light Shabbat candles than men, for instance, especially among married couples.

Non-Orthodox Jews are also less likely to stop their everyday lives for Shabbat. While Saturday is a weekend day, not all jobs close on Saturdays in most countries. So, for example, I’m a librarian. And I work one or two Saturdays a month. I would essentially have to claim a religious exemption to get out of working on Saturdays, and that’s not worth it to me for a number of reasons.

However, it might be worth it to your characters. A real life example of someone who claimed religious exemption for Shabbat is Steven Hill. Most of you will likely know him as Adam Schiff of Law & Order fame. What many of you may not know is that Steven Hill was the original leader of the original Mission Impossible team: Dan Briggs. (Fun Fact, Mission: Impossible was originally titled Briggs’s Squad before it got a rename.) Hill was only there for one season. The reason was that his religious beliefs about Shabbat didn’t work with the TV shooting schedule. He also lost many roles on Broadway and in movies because the producers weren’t willing to have their lead not work on Friday night and Saturday. However, other shows were willing to work with Hill. Law & Order went out of their way to make sure that all of Hill’s scenes were shot before Shabbat.

Even in Israel, some jobs have to work on Shabbat – hospitals and police stations can’t just close down, after all. Most unnecessary jobs will close (there’s a whole argument about the fact that public transportation mostly shuts down), but necessary jobs won’t. And while Orthodox Jews will try not to work those days, I’m sure some do.

It’s all in your character’s level of observance and what they consider a priority.

I, personally, light candles every Friday that I’m home (and will still be awake when they burn out; I’d rather not risk burning my apartment down, thanks). And I notice it’s Shabbat. And I do Shabbat dinner with family or friends sometimes, and sometimes I go to synagogue. But unlike Orthodox Jews, I don’t do all those things every week. Nor do I stop doing other things – I often take the subway to see friends (including to a Shabbat dinner!) or go to the theater or simply live my life. Your character may observe Shabbat – they may like the time off and having that separation – or they may have a career that doesn’t allow them to, or have made the choice not to. It’s really up to them (and you).

Sabbath Services

There are essentially three sets of services on Shabbat - Friday afternoon/evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon/evening. The afternoon/evening services are meant to take place crossing sunset - with the afternoon services before and the evening services after. Orthodox synagogues will be careful about this. Others may decide either a) they don’t care or b) they’re just doing evening and skipping the afternoon service altogether.

This is a general overview; I will be making a more in-depth post about prayer at some point in the future.

Friday night (Mincha/Kabbalat Shabbat/Ma’ariv – afternoon/welcoming the Sabbath/evening services) – in total about an hour to an hour and a half long, Kabbalat Shabbat includes a lot of beautiful songs, sung in a variety of tunes. This is the most likely-to-be-attended service at most Reform synagogues, some Conservative synagogues, and most college Jewish groups that aren’t Orthodox. It may be the only service at a college – I know at in my mixed Reform/Conservative group we just did services/dinner on Fridays, unless Saturday was also a holiday.

Saturday morning (Shacharit/Torah Service/Musaf – morning/Torah reading/additional services) – can take anywhere from an hour to four hours depending on the synagogue’s level of observance and what’s added. This is the most likely-to-be-attended service at many Conservative synagogues and some Reform synagogues, though all synagogues will hold it. This is the most common time for bar and bat mitzvahs (there are other options, we’ll discuss those in that post, but this is by far the most common) and any other event that’s really for the whole community, such as baby namings and aufrufs (a pre-wedding event, I’ll discuss that in the wedding post).

Saturday afternoon/evening (Mincha/Ma’ariv/Havdalah – afternoon/evening/separation services) – last about an hour to an hour and a half unless a meal (Seudah Shlishit, literally 'third meal') is served between Mincha and Ma’ariv, which is possible. Havdalah is about separating Shabbat from the rest of the week, and there’s specific blessings, along with smelling spices, drinking wine, lighting a multi-wick candle, and then ending with dunking the candle in the wine to put it out. Most Conservative synagogues and all Orthodox synagogues will hold at least some of this set, though Reform may skip it, or may only do Havdalah.

Are you still with me? Did you make it all the way to the end?

Congrats! Get yourself a glass of wine and a piece of challah.

Ultimately, how you choose to write Shabbat depends on your characters. They may be Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, who is definitely observant and would like to be even more so. (Seriously, listen to the lyrics of If I Were a Rich Man – he describes studying Torah all day as “the sweetest thing of all.”) They may be Magneto from X-Men, who was likely religiously observant before the Holocaust but has abandoned much of the ritual after (though he is very clearly affected by the Holocaust in his pursuit of mutant rights). They may be Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who regularly reminds people that she’s Jewish, but doesn’t really seem to observe the religion at all – it’s more present in the lack of Christianity (witness the scene where she hangs a cross in her room to stop vampires from entering, and her discussion of her father’s reaction).

All of these choices are valid! Just make sure you think about the level of observance, instead of just assuming.

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