Making Shobbos by Rabbi Golomb

The following is a short excerpt from an essay on The Sabbath and its Discontents.

Keeping Shabbat is always and inevitably a balancing act, mediating among a set of hopes and aims. Certainly, from week to week – perhaps from day to day – we switch our principal priorities. Now, I wish to connect to my Jewish heritage; now, I want to feel closer to God; now, I seek a real break from the rigors of the week.

The aim is misty, but what about the beginning? I am not referring to the conceptual beginning, but the practical one. Where does one begin in the overarching aim of simply keeping Shabbat? Keep in mind: wherever you begin, you are in the middle. I am going to recommend a few starting points.

Have Friday Dinner as a Family. As a child growing up in the suburbs, my family’s dinner was usually a bifurcated affair. My father tended to come home after his commute from the city at a time that my mother considered too late for me and my brothers to eat. If anything, the distribution of meals has become more fragmented, particularly with the prevalence of microwave ovens. Dinners can be prepared plate by plate, so even siblings can be – and usually are – on their own eating schedule. The simple act of seeing to it that the family comes together for dinner on Friday, in and of itself marks the occasion as special.

Light Candles. Few observances are both so simple and so accessibly meaningful. As evening draw nears we rely without a second thought on electric lighting in order to dispel the dark. Lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat is, from a practical standpoint, wholly superfluous. It can only be taken as symbolic, pointing us away from the everyday and ordinary.

Cut Some Everyday Activity Out. Is Shabbat different from the rest of the week at all? Consider doing something different. Start with low-hanging fruit. Cut out unnecessary use of money, for instance. You could gas up the car on Friday. Or turn off the ringer on your cell phone, and avoid taking calls unless it is family or an emergency. The Sabbath is not only about difference, it also about liberation; freeing oneself from the burdens of the week. When stopping the taking of or making phone calls, or staying away from commerce, feels like a release and not a restriction, then a little bit of Shabbat has been achieved. You figure it out. How far can you go?

* * *

The suggestions I have offered all point toward the fundamental notion of making Shabbat different. Of course, each day in manifold ways is different from each other. Modern life is not an assembly line in which the same items roll before us requiring repetition of the same action. It is precisely because each has its own distinction; not only each Tuesday in contrast to Monday, but this Tuesday in contrast to last week, and the week before, and before… Thus, the Sabbath must not be merely different. It has to be consciously distinct. One must make a point of pulling the family together, or lighting candles, or putting the cell phone ringer on vibrate. On Shabbat, the difference does not come to us. We need to make it.

Once you have found a way into Sabbath consciousness, here are a few more simple activities that make Shabbat a delight.

Bless your children/grandchildren. It is a traditional practice for a parent to pronounce the “priestly benediction” [May the Eternal bless you and keep you…”] over each child in the family at the commencement of the Sabbath evening meal. The blessing is beautiful; traditionally preceded by the words “May God make you as Efrayim and as Menasseh” toward boys, and “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” before girls. The content, however, is much less important than the very act of blessing itself. Indeed, merely reciting the formula of the priestly benediction is not enough. Those are words taken from an ancient text. Yes, they are significant in their continuity with generations past, but they are only words. A blessing should be drawn from the heart.

Jewish worship includes a twice-daily recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, conventionally known as Shma and v’Ahavta. The scriptural passage begins with affirmation of God’s Oneness, and calls upon us to love God intensely – which fundamentally means, I believe, to love all God’s creation. We are then commanded to impress this notion of love upon our children. Twice-daily, therefore, we are reminded of our responsibilities to the next generations. How lovely and meaningful it is to express our deepest wishes and hopes for our children at the beginning of each Sabbath.

Read/study a Jewish text. I am confident that you are well-read; indeed, you probably enjoy thinking about and discussing that which you read. Chances are, however, most of that reading is at best marginal to Judaism. The Sabbath can afford an opportunity to connect with one’s Jewish heritage through its extraordinary literature.

Which text? The easiest choice is the weekly Torah portion (par’shat ha-shavuah). The Pentateuch is broken into sections – technically pericopes – in order to assure that it be read in its entirety over the course of a year. There are many publications of the Torah organized in this fashion. As a rule, they consist of the Hebrew and English translation of the text, supplemented by an array of commentary, marginalia and explanations. The extra material provides both context and texture to any reading. Further, most of these publications include the weekly prophetic reading (Haftarah), though usually with much less explanatory additions. Sometimes, however, the poetry of the prophets, or occasionally the content of the prophetic text, might be preferred as a source of study.

While Torah and Haftarah are easily accessible, and also provide a systematic course of study each week. I would like to emphasize that any self-consciously Jewish text will do: collections of rabbinic midrash, passages from Mishna or Talmud, medieval Jewish poetry, excerpts from Maimonides or Judah ha-Levi. There are more contemporary choices: anthologies of Jewish folklore or short stories, or segments from the writing of modern Jewish thinkers such as those already mentioned in this book. There is a whole world of literature out there. It is entertaining, insightful, inspiriting, and it all connects you to your Jewish identity.

Lose your watch. Abraham Heschel called the Sabbath “a sanctuary in time.” Sanctuaries are physical protections; walls and a roof that can give its inhabitant both respite and security. The Sabbath, Heschel averred, can providing the same respite and security by “walling” one off from the rigors and anxieties of the work. Yet, it is not only a sanctuary in time, but also a sanctuary from time.

Modern family life is ruled by the clock. There are deadlines to meet, appointments to get to, soccer practice and dance lessons our children have to attend. A day cannot be passed without constant references to our watches. There are, however, occasions when we take our watches off (figuratively if not literally). They are vacations, when there is no place in particular we must be, and nothing special we must do. Most people consider their vacations a liberating experience. Put your watch aside each Shabbat (at least some Sabbaths at first) and see if a vacation of sorts cannot be created each week.

All of these Shabbat activities that I have listed are easy. They require very little physical, intellectual or emotional output. And yet they are also quite hard to do, for the very fundamental and obvious reason that most Jews simply do not do them! And the reason we do not do them is because we have not done them. Lighting candles, or reading a Jewish text each Sabbath could be rather effortless, once we get used to doing it. The action is not hard; it is the starting of it that poses difficulties.

* * *

So, let me add one more consideration: do not start alone. The components of the Sabbath are rest, family and heritage. These elements are, in and among themselves, natural and intuitive. But above all, Shabbat is a Jewish religious practice. As described earlier, religious practice is neither intrinsically natural nor intuitive. It takes practice! Certainly, acquiring a practice can done totally on one’s own volition, but doing so is invariably difficult. Acting in concert with others is considerably easier. It is useful, but hardly necessary to connect with an experienced guide. Nothing I have suggested, however, requires much instruction. All you really need is someone else – one or more individuals – willing to engage in the Sabbath along with you.

A story is told in the name of the Hasidic master Hayyim of Tzanz: A person was lost in the forest. Every path he tried seemed to fail. As despair was beginning to overtake him, he encountered another person. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “surely this one will show me the way out.” When he inquired about the proper path, his new acquaintance admitted to being just lost as he. “But this much I know. All the paths we have tried so far have not worked. Let us join together and forge a new way. Thus, we will succeed.”

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