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January 17, 2024

The Life-Renewing Practice of Shabbat (Jewish or Not).

Modern technology enables us to work 24/7 and the boundaries between home and work have blurred.

A steady stream of distressing news from around the globe assaults us daily around the clock.

Our society values production and we are judged by what we produce. I produce therefore I am. However, you cannot just continue wearing yourself out in body, mind, and spirit without suffering physical and mental burnout.

Although not raised Jewish, I observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) in the Jewish fashion on Saturday., This ancient practice seems more relevant than ever under modern conditions.

I take the day completely off. No chores, shopping, paying bills, writing, gardening, cooking, tricky negotiations, or work of any kind. The smartphone, TV, and computer are turned off. I take off my watch and do things when I feel like doing them, not when the clock says they should be done. I just rest, take a walk in the park, read, have lunch out or eat leftovers, and take a nap in the afternoon. It is profoundly regenerating. That one day can almost feel like two.

This is harder to do than you might think and actually requires discipline. There are endless chores, projects, and to-do lists. It is so tempting to say, “I will just finish that up Saturday morning.” Then I remember that no less a person than God told us to take Shabbat off and keep it holy. I don’t think I’d have the will power by myself to do it if God had not given such clear instructions.

Just saying “I will take a day off” is too weak. The pressures are too great. But who am I to argue with God? Keeping Shabbat is right up there in the Ten Commandments along with not stealing, murdering, and committing adultery.

I welcome Shabbat on Friday night as the light leaves the sky and heave a sigh of relief. A weight seems to lift. The week is over, good, bad, or indifferent. I light two candles. My husband and I drink a half glass of wine, and eat a morsel of bread in the traditional way, saying the blessings for candles, wine, and bread.

Then you say the greeting for the day, “Shabbat shalom” (Sabbath peace). Shabbat has officially begun. It does not feel underway until after the blessings, which have been repeated on Friday nights for three thousand years. It is deeply reassuring to think of all those who preceded us in this tradition. The Friday night dinner is always an extra nice meal. I no longer have children at home, but traditionally the father places his hands on the heads of the children and blesses them, too.

Everything can wait. The dirty laundry, the dust under the table. The bills. Correspondence. As Rabbi Ted Falcon remarked once, “Everything is all right the way it is.”

Sometimes I sleep nearly all day if I’m really tired. The word “Remember” in “Remember the Sabbath” is not accidental. It is so easy to forget. On automatic pilot, I actually start doing a chore and then remember that it is the Sabbath. The world has survived so far until I check back in on Sunday morning.

The Shabbat concept of rest goes beyond just doing nothing or staying in bed. It involves participating in activities that renew, restore, and quiet the spirit like listening to music, reading a good book, and walking in nature (a popular Shabbat activity according to my research.)

The legalistically-inclined can consult the famous list of 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat ¹ if they cannot decide what is or is not work. Please recall that these were written for an agrarian society. Those who want to explore this in further depth can consult the Shabbat and Eruvin sections in the Talmud, the 2nd-5th century record of rabbinic debates on the teachings of the Torah and still a primary source for Jewish ceremonial practice.

The Shabbat section is the longest of all and the Eruvin is devoted entirely to Shabbat boundaries. Please do not become so enmeshed in details that you lose sight of the purpose of the day. “The intention of Shabbat was to provide relief from everyday demands and to support a gentle environment for study, prayer, conversation, and, quite literally, rest….the Torah prohibits melachah, which is usually translated ‘work’…melachah seems to refer to creative work which reflects control or dominion over the world.” ²

A notable exception to the command to rest is activity to save a life: yours or someone else’s. Do what you need to do.

It is a sin to be sad on Shabbat. Burials and funerals are not allowed on that day. Even if you are in mourning for a death, you are not supposed to mourn on Shabbat. You are to change your mourning clothes for a fresh outfit and rise above it for a day. It is a sin to express anger on Shabbat as well. ³ By extension, one should avoid depressing and upsetting topics of all kinds on that day. I find a news fast to be essential in this regard.

And I rise above the everyday. You enter another zone of simply “I am.” I have a right to be. In the space that is created, new ideas show up and solutions to problems become apparent.

On the flip side, there is a work ethic. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath…” says Exodus 20:9-11. For six days, I give it my best. Sometimes the thought that the Sabbath is coming is all that gets me through the week, especially Friday afternoon, which can drag interminably. Saturday seems like a better day off than Sunday to me. We work so hard during the week that the arrival of Friday night is balm.

In Judaism, the woman gets the day off, too. As I observed the Christian sabbath, grandfather got the day off, but after church, grandmother put out a big Sunday dinner, often with guests, and then cleaned up afterwards to collapse in her armchair maybe around 4:00 p.m. I deeply appreciate the Jewish version and find it a validation of women’s work as work.

Taking the day off together can bring quite a few benefits to a family. Refreshed by sleeping until they wake up and not obliged to rush off somewhere, the couple can make love (a popular Sabbath practice). Parents and children can just hang out and actually talk to each other in a leisurely way. Anyone with teenagers knows that communication with them is like waiting behind a bush in the forest for the deer to appear. With some time and patience, teens will eventually tell you what is on their mind.

It is also important to have time to get in touch with myself on Shabbat as well. I often leave the house for a park, café, or library for quiet time alone for several hours without interruption.

It is hardly news that our country is not organized around Shabbat. There are times when I just cannot take it on a Saturday because of an obligation of some kind. In that case, I take a different day of the week to rest. To do so requires an act of will and feels like swimming upstream. At these times, I remember Rabbi Falcon, who once asked, “When do you think a rabbi takes Shabbat? I am busy running services on Saturday.” After silence from the group, he replied, “Thursday.”

Refreshed by Sunday morning, my mind is lucid and I am ready to fight the good fight for another week.

As Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), poet and philosopher (1856-1927) commented, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

~

1. Carrying 2. Burning 3. Extinguishing 4. Finishing 5. Writing 6. Erasing 7. Cooking 8. Washing9. Sewing 10. Tearing 11. Knotting 12. Untying 13. Shaping 14. Plowing 15. Planting 16. Reaping 17. Harvesting 18. Threshing 19. Winnowing 20. Selecting 21. Sifting 22. Grinding 23. Kneading2 4. Combing 25. Spinning 26. Dyein g27. Chain-stitching 28. Warping 29. Weaving 30. Unraveling 31. Building 32. Demolishing 33. Trapping 34. Shearing 35. Slaughtering 36. Skinning 37. Tanning 38. Smoothing 39. Marking (“Sabbath Day of Eternity” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (available separately, or included in the “The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology II,” published by the NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) Division of the Orthodox Union.) https://www.ou.org/holidays/the_thirty_nine_categories_of_sabbath_work_prohibited_by_law/

2. Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner, Judaism for Dummies. (Hungry Minds, Inc, New York, NY, 2001), page 208

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 1951), pages 29-30.

 References

>> Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner, Judaism for Dummies. (Hungry Minds, Inc, New York, NY, 2001)

>> Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, NY, 1951)

>> Wayne Muller, Sabbath (Bantam Books, New York, NY, 1999)

>> Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World (Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2011)

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