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A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Shabbat: How a Day of DON'Ts Can Nourish What You DO

When asked about Shabbat and what it means to observe this day of rest, rest is rarely the first thing I mention (if I mention it at all). In fact, usually what comes up in conversation is a lengthy list of "don'ts." When Jewish people observe Shabbat, we don't drive/ride in vehicles of any kind. We don't use phones, computers, televisions or i-pods. We don't turn lights on or off, cook, clean, do laundry or dishes. We don't write, type, tear, cut, craft or create. We don't heat food up in the oven or microwave or even boil water or brew coffee. We don't carry anything in our pockets or hands if we go for a walk. We don't shop or handle money. From sundown on Friday evening to nightfall on Saturday, it is Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath. We are commanded to see Shabbat as a delight--even so far as that we should refrain from discussing anything upsetting or sharing bad news. I've just listed enough examples of what we don't do that perhaps by now none of this is looking particularly delightful at all! In fact, far from being restful, all of these laws around keeping the Sabbath are looking like an awful lot of work.

Truthfully, before Shabbat arrives, sometimes it does feel like a lot of work. I did not grow up in a house where Shabbat was observed. My maternal grandparents keep the Sabbath, and as a young child, Shabbat at Grandma's and Grandpa's house felt both mysterious and uncomfortable at the same time. It felt uncomfortable because 25 hours without television or a trip in the car was a LONG time! It felt mysterious because even though I couldn't play computer games, there was something unique and extraordinary about Shabbat. Even as a little girl, something within me stirred when my Grandma draped a scarf over her hair, lit the two Shabbat candles, and with 3 waving motions of her hands, gathered in the Shabbat lights as she covered her eyes and sang the blessing. Then she would give my Grandpa and all of us a hug and a kiss, wishing everyone a "Good Shabbos!" And that was it. It was here. Like magic! Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath.
Grandpa would walk to shul (synagogue) to pray and as soon as he arrived home, it was time for dinner. We'd gather at the table and Grandpa would say Kiddush (the blessing over the Shabbat wine). Then my grandparents would perform the ritual washing of their hands, and Grandpa would make the blessings over the challah breads, thus beginning the meal. Gefilte fish, and chicken, kasha varnishkes, kugels and casseroles of all kinds, and desserts galore! It didn't matter if it was a house full of guests or just my a few; the meal was fit for an army (preferably one that had been fasting for the last 3 days). The table was cloaked in a beautiful tablecloth. Grandma always wore a pretty skirt or dress and Grandpa's face was always soft to the touch from just having shaved before sundown. After the meal, Grandma and Grandpa remained at the table to bentsh (grace said after the meal). As they would read Hebrew barely loud enough to be audible, I could see them gently rocking back and forth as they'd start to doze off in their chairs.
On Saturday morning, my grandparents would both walk to shul. I had the opportunity to join them when I was older (and this would be my first and only experience in an Orthodox synagogue until I was an adult). Shabbat day was spent playing card games and board games with Grandma and Grandpa, reading books, and enjoying a Kiddush lunch of cold leftovers from the big meal the night before. Eating cold food probably doesn't sound all that appetizing, but Shabbat seems to offer some secret ingredient that makes everything taste amazing! Grandma and/or Grandpa might doze off on the couch for a bit. My sister and I would play with their amazing collection of toys from when my Mom was a little girl--and something about an old tin dollhouse was way more fun than computer games, anyway! Sometimes the afternoon and early evening seemed to stretch on forever, laden with complaints of being bored and wondering loudly why we couldn't go to the park today. Suddenly, though-- seemingly out of nowhere--my Grandpa would call us all together again for Havdalah, and with yet a nother flame--this time on a braided blue and white candle with several wicks, some more blessings and wine, it was over. Shabbat had somehow evaporated into thin air with that same sense of having witnessed something magical.
The truth is, for me observing Shabbat to this level is still both mysterious and a little uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable because it is not something that I am used to doing. Beyond that, I live in a location where it may be Shabbat inside my home or the home I'm staying in, but outside those walls it's still just Friday night or Saturday. I feel the tug of wanting to attend some event that falls on a Saturday afternoon or the guilt of saying I cannot get together with a friend for the umpteenth time. It feels mysterious, though, because I know that all of these feelings are completely moot. Shabbat will come at sundown on Friday night whether or not I am "ready." And in the end, when the third star appears in the Saturday night sky, again Shabbat evaporates, seemingly into thin air. On the weeks I have observed Shabbat to the full extent, I never think in that moment, "Gosh, I wish I'd checked Facebook today," or "I really missed that sale going on downtown." I always feel renewed, connected, and in some amazing way as though Shabbat hit the "reset" button in my soul. What I can really say about it is that it is not I who keeps the Holy Sabbath; Shabbat Kodesh keeps me.