The Sages state: “One who eats three festive meals on Shabbat is spared from three misfortunes: the birth-pangs of the Messiah, condemnation to hell, and Armageddon” (Shabbat 118a). The Sages also state: “Whoever delights in Shabbat is spared from imperial subjugation” (ibid. 118b). Informing these statements is the idea that without Shabbat we would become totally subjugated to the material burden of this world. We would work nonstop in order to sustain our bodies and provide them with pleasure; we would forget our divine souls and find it difficult to elevate ourselves toward divine ideals. Our spiritual inclinations would be suppressed and silenced, and we would consequently sink into all the world’s faults and perversions, which are the cause of all calamity. But when one is privileged to connect to Shabbat with all his being, spiritual and material, through Torah study and prayer as well as rest and pleasure, he transcends the world’s flaws and reaches the eternally good world. Thus he is automatically saved from the calamities of this world.
This coarse material world is full of barriers that prevent the divine light from being revealed, and the soul from actualizing itself. But one who enjoys Shabbat through Torah, prayer, and good food connects his body with its spiritual roots. The physical becomes a vehicle of expression for the soul and for the sanctity of Shabbat. Then the limitations and impediments of this material world cease to exist, and the heart is made whole. This fulfills the words of the Sages: “Whoever enjoys Shabbat is given everything his heart desires” (Shabbat 118b).
By cleaning our houses and eating festive meals in honor of Shabbat, we link the material world to its spiritual roots, and draw down blessing upon it. This is the meaning of the statement of the Sages: “One who honors Shabbat merits wealth” (Shabbat 119a). They similarly state: “Whoever makes Shabbat enjoyable receives boundless territory” (ibid. 118a), as the biblical text states:
If you refrain from trampling the Shabbat, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call Shabbat “delight,” the Lord’s holy [day] “honored”…. Then you will seek the Lord’s delight. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Yaakov – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Yeshayahu 58:13-14)
Yaakov’s heritage is boundless.
At first glance it would seem very easy to enjoy Shabbat with good food. Why then did the Sages talk at such length about the great reward for doing this? Doesn’t everyone like to eat and enjoy? What must be kept in mind is that the mitzva is to take pleasure in Shabbat – not in the palate or the gut. In other words, we must enjoy the meals while recognizing that they serve to express the sanctity of Shabbat. The meals should leave one with a greater desire to learn more Torah and do more mitzvot. If one is privileged to enjoy Shabbat, and joins the pleasure of the body with the exaltation of the soul, he merits holiness and blessing both in this world and in the World to Come.
Though Shabbat and Yom Tov are similar, there is also a difference between them. The mitzva of Shabbat is oneg (pleasure, delight) while the mitzva of Yom Tov is simĥa (joy). The difference is that simĥa is conspicuous and visible to others. Thus it is a mitzva on Yom Tov to eat meat and to drink more wine than usual. However, oneg is more internal, subtle, and refined. Thus the mitzva of eating on Shabbat is also more refined. One who does not really enjoy meat and wine can enjoy other foods instead. Perhaps this is why fish is a typical Shabbat food; its taste is refined and subtle.