The Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, is a day for rest, prayer, and spending time with family. During Shabbat, which begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening and lasts until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night, the city seems to be in hibernation. All practicing Jews refrain from activity. Currently there are 139 listed activities that must be avoided.
The word Shabbat derives from the Hebrew verb shavat (Hebrew: שָׁבַת), which means rest or ceasing from work. It’s interesting to observe how a culture defines rest: no use of electronic gadgets, including elevators, ovens, cars, and buses—even light switches. And it’s amusing to see how the faithful find their way around many of the do-nots. At our hotel, for instance, the lift is put in Sabbath- or slow-mode, which means it gets set to open on all floors, so no one needs to push a button. You just step inside and it waits patiently before it moves to the desired floor. There is also the concept of the Sabbath year, or sabbatical, in the Jewish tradition. Just as the Torah calls for a day of rest after six days of work, it also calls for Shmita, or a year of release for the fields after they’ve been cultivated for six years. Universally, the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle is supposed to be the resting or fallow period for the land and soil. Shmita is about more than agriculture in the Jewish tradition. It is a time to forgive debts, and to share whatever bounty comes from your land. After observing Shabbat, I started to think about how I would define rest and also whether prayer should be connected with rest. In Vedic thought, meditation implies a stillness of the being on a physical, mental, and spiritual level—it is a state of rest that creates a protective cover around us. In the Rig Veda we find the prayer, “Pari pātu viśvataḥ” (Rig Veda Hymn 10.37 lit.), which can be translated as may it protect me from all sides. The root pā, in pātu, has two meanings: one is to protect and the other is to drink. Protection can be gained in two different ways: from the outside and from within. It is by filling the being from within that the protection of the root pā is implied.
The Jewish day of rest also got me thinking about the significance of the number seven. Is there any connection between the seven specific objects used on Navruz from Persia; the seven species: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates in Judaism; the seven rivers, Sapta Sindhavah; the seven sages; and the seven tongues or flames of agni in the Indian Vedic? The number reappears across all three religions.
What is religion, after all? The term is a 19th century word that comes from the Latin root religare, which means to go on repeating. And, of course, repetition is religion’s most powerful tool—as it is for the oral tradition. Interestingly, I could not find a word for religion in any of the three traditions I visited, nor in any of the three languages, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Avestae.