WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT SHABBAT?
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Why celebrate Shabbat at all
Good questions deserving a good answer.
Shabbat is really an amazing institution - central to Judaism. Of course its chief root lies in the Torah's account of creation, whereby G-d creates the world in six days and on the seventh day G-d rests. In this way, Judaism gave the world it's 7-day week - ending in the Sabbath. (The Christian world changed the Sabbath to Sunday.)
The key thing to understand about Shabbat is that it must be DIFFERENT from the other days of the week. On the other days, we work and "toil." But on the Sabbath, we rest, pray, study sacred texts, eat, drink and have a lovely time.
It never occurred to me that this would be enjoyable or pleasureable or something that would appeal to me in the slightest, UNTIL I GOT INVOLVED WITH AN ORTHODOX SYNAGOGUE where I had simply shown up to take Free Hebrew Lessons (Hebrew Crash Course - 1-800-44-HEBREW - www.NJOP.Org)
Since I liked the people in the class and found the Rabbi to be extremely bright, interesting and inspiring, I started attending "shul" (synagogue) on Shabbat. I came to be amazed at the power of Shabbat!
There are many "rules and regulations" to observing Shabbat that have been shaped over the thousands of years Jews have been doing this. If you get hung up on how you HATE the Do's and Don'ts you can miss the beauty of this great institution.
What I eventually came to understand was that when you do observe the rules and regulations, Shabbat becomes a unique experience.
I will give you an example. There is a prohibition against carrying on Shabbat. I used to think "how stupid." "What an old-fashioned, restrictive idea." Hmmph! I was practically "offended" at such a rule.
Then I had occasion to visit some friends who were somewhat observant. It was during the Succot holiday - in the autumn. It was a gorgeous fall day in a lovely suburb. We rode our bikes (something that the Truly Observant would not do on Shabbat) to the house of some friends of theirs who were having a Succot party. I insisted on bringing my purse which must have weighed five pounds - at least. But when we got to the home where the party was, we had to leave our bikes some place discreet and it seemed advisable to also leave my purse, well hidden in the bushes. I thought it was all ridiculous but I didn't want to be offensive by breaking the laws that others were observing.
Guess what? The minute I was relieved of the burden of that heavy clunker on my shoulder I felt liberated! Wow! What a "burden" had been taken off me! I felt lighter! I felt different! I felt better!
Suddenly I had a new RESPECT for the laws of Shabbat. This one certainly made sense! Unload your burdens on Shabbat! I LOVED IT!...
Over the years as I would observe Shabbat with my more religious friends, I came to see what a special day it was. First of all you have these great Friday evening Shabbat dinners. They can be tremendous fun, if you get a great group together. You go to shul, you say some prayers, you eat delicious food and drink some Kosher wine, you talk and laugh and sometimes get a bit tipsy - and all in all, you walk out feeling terrific - better - and most of all, a bit DIFFERENT - because often you walk out WITHOUT the purse you left at home - WITHOUT packages you would otherwise be lugging - WITHOUT money or a wallet - just the key to your house (which the more observant will attach to their clothing so that it's part of a "belt" - which is more acceptable than just carrying it - which is not strictly Kosher.) You walk home (no taxi's, no bus or subway or car) and you feel uplifted. Sometimes you walk with others and have some pleasant conversation and sometimes you might walk alone, humming the tunes you've sung with others. It's a delight! As we say, a GREAT institution.
On Saturday, you go to Synagogue and hear the weekly Parsha (Torah portion) read - and the Haftorah - (all of this is much easier if you can follow along in the Hebrew) (Click here to learn to read Hebrew - 1-800-44-HEBREW - www.NJOP.Org) - and often there are beautiful ancient melodies - if you're lucky enough to have a great Chazan (cantor) who leads the service by singing large portions of it. And then there's the Kiddush - prayer over wine plus refreshments - which often means a form of lunch. And of course there's going to be great discussions and socializing during that.
The key is to go regularly - where you come to be part of the community - where you come to know people and they come to know you.
Perhaps the best way to understand Shabbat is to actually participate in a Shabbat with others who are observing it.
I was brought up in a regular American Jewish home in a Jewish suburb. No one I knew observed Shabbat - Saturdays were for SHOPPING. Whoppee! That was so much fun! No one I knew went to Temple regularly. It was so BORING! And of course everyone HATED Hebrew School. But my parents, being intellectuals, didn't bother sending any of us to Hebrew School. They didn't think much of the lavish Bar Mitzvah's our friends and neighbors had. But they insisted we attend Sunday School at the Reform Temple - that we had to do - even though we HATED it.
(Now I'm so glad I had that much Jewish education - because it turns out I've remembered it - and I'm glad to have had that much!)
It was a very modern, assimilated upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood outside of Boston. I moved to New York, went to Art School and became a filmmaker. The people I knew and liked were mostly in the Arts - actors and artists and other off-beat characters. But at a certain point I started getting more and more interested in Judaism. And around that time, I had a series of terrible losses that were quite devastating to me. I had signed up for a Hebrew Crash Course (1-800-44-HEBREW - www.NJOP.Org) that was given at an Orthodox Synagogue not far from my Greenwich Village apartment. I liked the class a lot. I loved learning to read Hebrew (it wasn't that hard and I'd always wanted to be able to read Hebrew) and I found that, much to my surprise, I really liked the other people in the class. They were fun - nice - and, surprise, a touch off-beat - just like the people I gravitate to.
That synagogue had a new rabbi - a young Lubavitcher - with a long, scraggly beard and of course dark clothes. As I came to know him, I discovered that he had not grown up in a religious family at all - but in a family much like mine - very assimilated, liberal, arts-oriented, etc. - AND his parents were intellectuals like mine. But he had "found God" while he was in college and had switched course to pursue his degree as a Lubavitch Rabbi. He was as sharp, as smart and witty and intellectual as they come. And he was very much in love with traditional Judaism and was a very strict follower of the laws.
This was astonishing to me. I'd never met anyone like him. But I enjoyed his Torah class so much - and I was learning so much in it - and he kept inviting me to join in other activities - that eventually I actually became a member of that synagogue - an Orthodox Synagogue - me!
The more I participated in the activities of this Synagogue, the more I came to appreciate what Orthodoxy had to offer. One of the key elements that Orthodoxy - indeed Judaism - offers is this lovely practice of observing Shabbat.
There are many elements to Shabbat. It's not simple. There's not one single thing that you do - there's a collection of things that you do - and when you do several of them, you start to get a sense of how special Shabbat can be.
In fact there are quite a number of rules you're supposed to follow that at first seemed ridiculous to me - but out of respect for the people who follow these laws - and actually believe they come directly from G-d - I would observe the rules when I was around these people. And in the process of doing that, I gained tremendous respect for the rules - and more than that - for the institution of Shabbat. Indeed it DID create an aura of rest and holiness - it was indeed a sanctuary from the rush and strife of everyday life - it really did connect people in the community to each other - it really did connect us all to the ancient traditions of Judaism. It really did deepen my sense of what it means to be Jewish. And, besides all that - it was fun! It was wonderful to be with a group of lively people all squeezed together around a big table having a Shabbat dinner. It was fun learning the prayers and rituals and eating a delicious meal and having a bit of wine and singing the grace after the meal. Because many of the people in this group were musical, when we'd sing the Grace after Meals, people would harmonize beautifully - it was so lovely. It was a wonderful way to spend part of your weekend.
In this way, I learned not only to respect Shabbat - but to love it - because it really did what it was supposed to do. It kind of changed the chemistry of your inner self - you felt BETTER after observing Shabbat - you felt more rested - more peaceful - like you had been through a lovely experience. Because you had!
And I saw that others would feel the same as I if they were exposed to it. So I figured that if I could make a list of some of the easier ways to start observing Shabbat, maybe some other Jews would enjoy that - and come to appreciate Shabbat the way that I had.
MORE ABOUT SHABBAT
It is said that more than the Jewish people keeping Shabbat over the centuries - Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
There is truth to this. If you have ever been in an Orthodox community on Friday afternoon, you can feel Shabbat in the air. Everyone is scurrying to complete preparations for the Sabbath that begins at sundown. Itís a community with ONE thing in mind - ONE goal - to batten down and pull in and change from the daily rush-about to a quiet time of peace and contemplation together. The pleasures of Shabbat are multiplied when the entire community participates. It creates an "aura" that is palpable - and powerful - and meaningful. Youíre part of a COMMUNITY that together observes this special day in special ways. You're all on a wave-length - the same wave-length. Itís truly lovely - truly special. Everyone should experience this at least once just to see it in action. Itís quite amazing and beautiful - and it is the essence - the heart and soul - of what Judaism is about.
Because there are laws of behavior that make a change in the atmosphere to one of peace and quiet and inner contemplation as well as community celebration, Shabbat has been called "an oasis in time." Rabbi Joshua Heschel called it a "cathedral in time" because you enter a special period that is imbued with a sense of holiness. This special time is enhanced by the observers - and the observances - by stopping all regular weekday activities and changing behavior to the special behaviors of Shabbat - the participants create the space for Shabbat to happen.
Shabbat is a time to gather with friends and family - to rest and recover from the week - to celebrate life and the best most enduring values. Regularly observing Shabbat comes to define the week. During the week we work and worry and rush about. But come Shabbat we stop all of that - we slow down and turn inward - to higher thoughts - and to deeper ideals - to special practices we share with friends and family and the community. Defining the week in this way, changes the whole perspective on life - the whole sense of what life can be about and how to live it in a satisfying and uplifted way. Shabbat is truly an ancient cure for modern-day stress.
Do you have to be Orthodox to celebrate Shabbat?
Of course not! Shabbat is available to all Jews - and it's so wonderful, that all Jews should try it! It's not something that most of us can jump into doing on a "strict" basis - it takes time to get into the rythmn of Shabbat - it takes time to get accustomed to the practices of a traditional Shabbat. But there's no reason not to start with just a few simple steps.
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