Jewish Life Shabbat Primer

The Essence of Shabbat

Jewish Ledger Cover January 7, 2011

Jewish Ledger | 01/07/11

No discussion of Shabbat would be complete without a word from our spiritual leaders.
And so, we asked rabbis from all across the state for their thoughts on the following question:

Perhaps to entice more people to take part in its celebration, we have seen in recent years a loosening – or perhaps broadening – of the practices that traditionally have defined Shabbat. If someone interested in celebrating Shabbat were to approach you for guidance, what would you describe as the essence of Shabbat that should be kept in mind as one embarks on this journey?

The essence of Shabbat is articulated with eloquence and precision in the language of our tradition. It serves as a remembrance of creation (Zecher l’mmaseh bereshit), as it also recalls the exodus from Egypt (Zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim).  To paraphrase the great sage Hillel when he extrapolated the verse “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, the rest is commentary. As a designated day of holiness with a modified schedule and a unique paradigm of appropriate activities, we are provided with the gift of keeping vibrant in all times the two most transformative occurrences in all of history.  The traditions are the tools that help us keep history relevant. To focus and ruminate on the restrictions of the day is to miss its point; to celebrate the day and all it represents can elevate the human spirit and bridge the span connecting Heaven and earth. Before experiencing Shabbat, a Jew should first endeavor to understand Shabbat. Explore the generations of committed Shabbat observances and customs, allow them to be lights of guidance, and the last day of the week will be transformed into a wonderful and priceless day.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Beth David Synagogue, West Hartford (Orthodox)

Perhaps the greatest gift of the Jews to humanity is the concept of Shabbat. For me, the essence of Shabbat is that you create for yourself a day of altered connections. In our secular rat-race world, we are connected 24/ 7 to our cell phones and email, our struggle to make a living, the Internet and the hyper-commercialism of 21st century American society. Shabbat is an opportunity to make different connections; to break free of that which makes our lives so tense and to connect instead to the spiritual world. By observing the rituals of Shabbat, we can open up our souls to God. Be it candle lighting or Kiddush, Shabbat prayers or Torah study, all are gateways of the spirit, and the more we do the better the chance we will make a good connection. Shabbat is a day to connect as well with the Jewish community. We do it in the synagogue, both at services and at the Oneg Shabbat or luncheon, and at home (or at a friend’s home) when we share a Shabbat meal. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to connect to our own families by giving us the down-time we lack all week to interact in a deeper, more intensive way than we are able during the week when we are so often ‘ships passing in the night.’ And, finally, Shabbat can give us a chance to connect with our own neshama, our soul, as we break the shackles of modern technology.

Rabbi Richard Plavin
Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, Manchester (Conservative)

There is a common denominator, despite individual preferences, for anyone who is interested in celebrating Shabbat in a way that will be meaningful, even without being technical or legalistic. That common feature is to assign Shabbat a priority that cannot be superseded by anything else that comes along.
A family might decide, for example, to celebrate Shabbat by making Friday evening’s dinner a special meal. This would involve a commitment by all of the members of the household to participate.  Members of the family would prepare, light candles, honor and bless each other, recite Kiddush, and express their thanks to God for each other and for the blessings of the meal and of the week gone by. This family gathering—in honor of God the Creator, in appreciation for each other, and in solidarity with our People—will not be disturbed nor interrupted BY ANYTHING.  This time is set aside for this purpose.  It is assigned Priority Number One.  Nothing else will displace it.  Nothing else can be given a higher priority, even “just this time.”
Shabbat is holy time.  “Holy” means set aside, set apart, for a distinct purpose.  The moment something else can displace it, Shabbat is no longer experienced as Holy.  The inviolable, weekly frequency of its observance has a cumulative effect.  While at first it may be difficult to forgo other, compelling activities, the Shabbat experience develops into something to which you look forward, and without which something would be missing from your life.

Rabbi Gary J. Lavit, MS, STM
Board Certified Chaplain, Director of Pastoral Care
Hebrew Home & Hospital, West Hartford
President, Greater Hartford Rabbinical Association

Our time is limited and precious. Carving out Shabbat is counter intuitive to the rush of our modern day society.  Shabbat can be a gift that invites us to be rather than to do. We spend so much of our time performing what we see as the necessary tasks for living, we rarely take the time to enjoy it. A weekly day off given by our “real boss” to reflect on what really matters. It is a day about listening to oneself, rejoicing with family, and connecting with your community. Find ways to have rituals during this special time, start small, and enjoy one of the most amazing gifts you can give yourself.

Rabbi Michael Pincus
Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford (Reform)

Shabbat is more important in the 21st century than all previous centuries. Our lives are so busy and the demands of the workplace relentless. Technology; computers, cell phones etc., have the potential to free us and yet more often they imprison us. If we work so we can eat and eat so we can work, we are stuck in a cycle leading nowhere. There has to be meaning in our lives. We are living in the “information age,” but when do we enter the “age of meaning”? Life can’t be just about work. Shabbat is the answer!
This is what I strive towards with my family and recommend to you: Break out of your usual work schedule. Prepare for the Shabbat together. Kindle and usher in the light of Shabbat together, bless your children, and embrace your spouse and the people you love. Invite friends over to eat with you. Eat slowly. Savor your food. Share inspirational words about the Parsha. Sing songs together and really pause to count your blessings. Shabbat is time to feed your soul. Make your conversations deeper. Ponder what life really means to you. Inject humor into your discussions. Make your Shabbat a joyous event.
It doesn’t matter which tradition you follow or what movement you are part of, the most important thing is to experience a meaningful Shabbat. The time to live your life and pursue the deepest desires of your soul is now. Think of Shabbat as an Island in time. On this Island is buried a treasure chest. Inside this treasure chest is contained every precious thought and insight you’ve ever had. Enter Shabbat in a spirit of reverence and open up this treasure chest! You will strengthen your soul, your relationship with your family and the invisible omnipresent God you worship.

Rabbi Shaul Praver
Congregation Adath Israel, Newtown (Conservative)

Shabbat is a time for spiritual and cultural rest and renewal. It should be restful, pleasant, and enjoyable, something that we look forward to; if not, then something is wrong.
Shabbat should include special food, clothing, song, story and fellowship. It is a time reserved for family, friends, community and self, and not for employers, clients or business associates. A busy family should reserve at least Friday night every week to eat together; others should invite friends over for a meal. A couple of hours at a synagogue service or lecture, a walk in the neighborhood, an afternoon with a good book, all change one’s outlook on life.
Creativity comes from constraint. Turning off the phone, computer and TV establishes a sanctified mental space and time without the demands and stress of work and commerce. With their phones and ipods off, children and adults are forced, for a few hours each week, to actually interact face-to-face with other people. A meal becomes something more than a pizza delivery or frozen slab tossed in the microwave.
Most adults and youth in my life believe that they would be happier and better off if they worked less at their job, business or schoolwork and spent more time with friends and family. For those seeking jobs, who feel they need to search interminably, Shabbat gives permission to take a needed break. For those in isolation, Shabbat creates one day a week when others who are usually too busy to pay attention are now free and available as a community to provide some direct human contact. In short, the traditional prescriptions and proscriptions for Shabbat are a tremendous boost to the mental and spiritual health of the individual and community. It is, ultimately, what the Almighty wants for us.
Shabbat is a statement about the dignity of labor and the purpose of human life and of the Jewish People. The Friday night Kiddush — the blessing typically recited over a cup of wine or grape juice — indicates that the Shabbat is a memorial to the creation of the world and to the Exodus from Egypt. These two events are connected in that they both speak to the purpose of our lives and the value of our labor. In the Genesis story, God takes six days to make the world. Why would an omnipotent deity need six days for this job? An hour-and-a-half maybe, but why six whole days?
A people who were slaves in Egypt and subsistence workers in industrial Europe and America understood that the creation and Exodus stories teach important lessons about labor and labor rights. The Jewish position is that every person has a God-given right to a day off, and experience suggests that if you don’t exercise your right, you jeopardize it. The vast majority of Americans have seen no real income growth in the past 20 years and work more hours each week. If we don’t defend the Sabbath with religious zeal, we may wind up with nothing left. The Shabbat is our best hope for a dignified and joyful future as individuals, families and as a People.

Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen
Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, New Haven (Conservative)

“More than Israel has kept Shabbat,” wrote Ahad Ha-Am in 1917, “Shabbat has kept Israel.” In 2010 I believe the future viability of our faith rests with keeping Shabbat as a special and different day of the week.
As a very proud Reform Jew I define Shabbat more by what I do – and encourage others to do– than by what I do not do to make Shabbat special. In that sense, the answer to this question is a decided, “Yes!” We have broadened the parameters of acceptable Shabbat practice, but I would not go so far as to include “whatever way he or she chooses.” For example, I would not call “going to work as usual” an affirmation of Shabbat. On the other hand driving a car to take the family on an outing, playing tennis, going for a swim, or even – yes– shopping to buy a sweater or some other article that one does not have time to do during the rest of the week can, in my view, (and I know to some this is blasphemy) be an expression of Shabbat holiness.
When people come to me to ask how to infuse the Shabbat with holiness – how to make it different than other days, I encourage them to begin with small steps. Light Shabbat candles as a symbol of God’s presence in your lives and, say the blessing. If every Jewish family or individual did even that much, our sense of Shabbat as a community would be much stronger. From there I would encourage Kiddush to sanctify the special joy of Shabbat, followed by blessing one’s children, saying the Motzi and enjoying a special Shabbat meal. I would encourage regular worship with a congregation and the study of Torah either with a synagogue group or alone.
“Journey” (as used in the question) is a wisely chosen word. Shabbat can and should be a journey. A journey can begin with very small steps and it can lead to a wonderful day that enhances our understanding of what it means to be human, created in the Divine image. That does not mean we look like God; it means that we of all creatures are in charge of and responsible for life on this earth. If we take steps to make Shabbat holy – different from the rest of the week in significant ways – we shall, I am sure, do a better job of fulfilling the sacred task with which the Almighty has entrusted us. We will also strengthen Jewish identity for the next generation.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, D. Min., DD
Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford (Reform)

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