In this YouTube video, Grover (my favorite Muppet) asks, “Why do we need a day of rest?”
The Global Day of Jewish Learning website includes an answer from Rav Adin Steinsaltz: “The day of rest is a comparatively new idea, the influence of the Jewish Shabbat on the world. From a secular perspective, a rest day breaks the killing routine of life. Even when we can’t really relax, the day still lessens the unbearable burden of duties and demands, orders and work. However, when the day of rest is a holy day, it has the power of re-infusing some spirit of life into an age that is, in many ways, empty of any exalted feeling. Such a day revives the dormant soul, opening our eyes so that we can watch for something higher.”
One of the greatest hurdles I had to jump in becoming a frum Jew was Shabbat observance. Kashrut was something I’d been slowly building on for a year (giving up pork and shellfish, separating meat and dairy), but the thought of not turning lights on and off, not cooking or reheated food in the standard way (e.g. in the microwave), and not driving seemed bizarre. What would I do all day? What would I eat? What about all that electricity I’d be wasting?
Over time, of course, I learned what sorts of food to make that reheat well on a warming tray. We have a timer on our electrical panel that turns off the lights Friday night and turns them on again Saturday morning. And with four young children, I never ask, “What’ll I do with myself all day?” (I can’t remember the last time I asked that question.)
But Shabbat goes way beyond all that. The fact that it’s such a foreign (and suspicious) concept to secular people explains much about what daily life is like today. Jews were accused in ancient times of laziness for taking a day off from work every week. (Yes, people used to work seven days a week.) Now, we’re considered just plain weird for laying off the computer, the Blackberry, the phone, the car, the television, even money, for a whole day. There has been an explosion in ways to stay electronically connected to others, but whether this means that people are REALLY connected to others, i.e. spending time sitting in the same room, sharing a meal with them, having long conversations, is another matter entirely.
From what I’ve observed, Shabbat is the glue that holds the frum Jewish community together. It’s the occasion on which I see my friends (who, like me, are running around all week for their livelihoods or their children and have no time to see other people), meet new people, and sit at the table for long, leisurely, sumptuous meals instead of the usual brief, weekday ones. It’s the day when people celebrate life cycle events for bnei mitzvah (children coming of age), aufrufs and Shabbatot kallah (honoring brides and bridegrooms before their weddings), and kiddushes (in honor or memory of a family member). It’s a day on which we read from the Torah and attend talks expounding on the lessons of history, culture, and man’s relationship to the Divine in the week’s reading.
It’s the day when I have time to sit and play cards with my children, read to them, hear them read to me, tell them stories, discuss the weekly parashah (Torah reading), and sometimes nap with them. When it’s warm (which is most of the year here in Israel), we take them to the local playground where we meet up with friends who also have young children, or sometimes introduce ourselves to the other parents. Sometimes we go to friends’ houses and drop in (NOT something we would do on a weekday), spending a few hours chatting while the kids play, until Shabbat goes out and we make havdalah (the closing ritual to Shabbat) together before going home.
Besides providing social and spiritual benefits, Shabbat observance is one of the defining characteristics of a halachically observant Jew. One of my teachers, Rav Mois Navon, pointed out once that when choosing witnesses for a wedding (to give but one example), the reason people who keep Shabbat are chosen is that it is the one commandment that Jews are given in order to emulate God. We keep kosher to “be a holy people,” and we do many of the rituals to remember our exodus from Egypt, or the fact that we were once strangers in a strange land. But just as God rested on the seventh day, we are commanded to rest also. To emulate God is to acknowledge that there is a God, that the justice defined in the Torah is universal, and that observance of the laws of the Torah is obligatory. Those who keep the Sabbath demonstrate an awe of God and reverence for the rule of law that qualifies them to act in accordance with the commandments in a way that idol worshipers and atheists cannot.
I sometimes imagine what it would be like to give up this life, move to Tel Aviv, get a tiny ocean-view apartment, and eat out at a non-kosher restaurant on the beach on Shabbat. But despite the effort it takes to create a day off (doing double the work on Thursday and Friday, represented in the Torah by collecting double the amount of manna on the sixth day), it is always worth it. I get to relish doing something totally different for a day, see my kids when we’re not rushing off to go somewhere or do something, and by the end, I’m ready to get back to my regular life.
Shabbat is useful for nourishing healthy relationships, but can also help repair bruised ones. When the Cap’n and I were ironing out some of our differences before we married, our rabbi’s wife told us to spend every Shabbat together, talking. I read the same advice given to a couple that was having marital difficulties by their Reform rabbi (Reform not being famous for its adherence to Sabbath observance). In more general terms, I have heard that Shabbat is making a comeback in the liberal movements of Judaism.
At its best, Shabbat for me is revisiting all my favorite aspects of holiday time with my family growing up: good food, doing puzzles, playing games, having the house clean (and decorated, when applicable), spending time together. And while we didn’t often have guests on the holidays, my favorite Christmas was the one where my mother’s Aunt Martha and Uncle Ted tooled in their Winnebago from their home in New Hampshire to ours in Oregon, parked it next to our house, and spent the holiday with us. Shabbat combines most of those fondly-remembered elements, and is always enhanced by foreign company.
A reader once left a comment where she said that she sometimes imagines going back to the life she led before she converted, but the thought of giving up Shabbat stops her every time. Hear, hear.