The Shabbat Effect
While Universe didn’t manifest for any particular reason — purpose as such is a phenomenon of the world, it postdates world’s birth — the meaning behind Shabbat, or more generally the day of rest, is rather clear-cut.
The concept of a day of rest is known in many cultures. Cherokee pray and reflect in silence with every new moon, Buddhists have a day dedicated to “the cleansing of the defiled mind” each lunar phase, and the trinity of Abrahamic traditions have their holy Friday, Saturday, and Sunday every seven days respectively. (Just for the record, Hinduism has such holy-days all over the calendar.)
The day of rest is also unambiguously marked by fasting. Sometimes in the form of abstinence from sexual gratification, sometimes in the form of a literal fast, but always in the form of a retreat from work and usual day-to-day activities. You may say that, in general, it’s a withdrawal from activities connected to survival.
And although different traditions then enforce different rules and different levels of strictness of the self-imposed restraint, the overall purpose of these limitations is the same.
First, they free one’s attention. One is able to concentrate on subtle things beyond immediate day-to-day concerns. This is also the reason why it is more efficient, if a community rests on the same day.
Second, they break the inertia and habitual behavior patterns that build up during the period of time between the days of rest.
Third, they introduce a certain level of perceptual acuteness. Limiting the food intake, refraining from sensual pleasures, reducing social activity, and other similar methods rise the overall level of awareness as such or they shift the focal point of awareness completely.
The previous points as a whole, then, create space, time, and conditions suitable for contemplation and meditation.
Although the actual practices depend on a particular tradition — be it contemplation of Lord’s Prayer, Ten Words, and similar postulates; be it quiet reflection on one’s memories, thoughts, or reactions to various inquiries; be it simple observation of one’s perceptions either in sitting meditation or by practicing non-action (wu-wei) — they are always associated with examination of one’s “inner” world in the light of absolute truth and reality, they are always targeted at cleansing of one’s mind.
The Universal Path to Liberation
Know thyself — four steps to freedom or spirituality in a nutshell.
Now, while many traditions moved these exercises into a communal setting, such customs are utterly counterproductive because they defeat the whole purpose of Shabbat.
As all ascetics will tell you, and as also e.g. Matthew 6:6 and Matthew 6:17–18 confirms, these practices should be performed in a private setting where one feels comfortable and at ease. Free from all social self-censoring and pressure of expectations which go with displays of performative ritual religiosity. Free from feeling like an idiot for meditating in public. Et cetera.
The only case where communal approach to Shabbat makes sense is a monastic setting. However, it is obvious that being a monk one day per week does not provide the necessary comfort and relaxing atmosphere. (Did you ever been on a weekend long “self-improvement” seminar?) Communal setting therefore makes sense only with Shabbats that last at least a week, such as the famous 10-day Vipassana retreat, or similar. On the other hand, even a forty day long Shabbat can be pulled off in the comfort of one’s home.
And just as a side note — did you know that “worship” merely means “(to give) worth, (to) honor, dignity”? In some languages, it is translated as “service to God.” Well, what better service to God can you perform than making yourself open to knowing Him? How can you better give worth to, and honor, Absolute than create conditions for realizing it?
So yeah folks, keep the day of rest and do the necessary “work.” Don’t just go through the motions of a ritual. After all, before enlightenment, you create conditions for your self-realization. After enlightenment, you simply rest in wholeness of the eternal Shabbat of Now.