Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 25 October 2019
‘More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people’
A few years ago a Bar Mitzvah student, commenting on his Torah portion Bereshit at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS) described each of the six days of creation as ‘earth days’, days which are measured not by hours and minutes, but by something that transcends linear time of morning, afternoon and evening.
This expressive term also made me think about how we relate to time and how it governs our life. It is perhaps a platitude to say that time gets shorter as we get older. But I remember how as a child playing in the park or in the garden, poking around in the earth, or lying under the branches of some enormous tree, or riding my bike around the neighbourhood where I lived, time seemed to go on forever. It worked in two ways – there was the proverbial – are we there yet, at the beginning of a long car journey which always seems interminable to a child; and then the call to come in for supper which made the time for play, discovery and exploration pass all too quickly.
In our 24/7 society, I often wonder how those who keep their shops open for twenty-four hours manage to create a structure of time for themselves. How do they cope with the cycles and rhythms of darkness and light, even their own physical rhythms? The Talmud, without the benefit of clocks, watches and digital time pieces, divided the hours of darkness into three watches of four hours each, beginning with twilight and ending with dawn – the time from which the evening and morning Shema may be recited. But as to the middle hours, how did our ancestors know if it was midnight or three o’clock in the morning? A passage in the Talmud captures the progression of the three watches, each with its own evocative and accurate sense of how one could determine the time: ‘In the first watch,’ said R. Eliezer, ‘the ass brays; in the second, the dogs bark; in the third the child sucks from the breast of his mother, and the woman talks with her husband’ (bBer. 3a). Anyone who suffers from insomnia, or who has to get up in the night to tend a crying baby, a doctor who is called out in the night, will understand Rabbi Eliezer’s sensitivity to the different moods of these three periods in the night.
The culmination of the six ‘earth days’ is a single day – the polar opposite of all the frenetic creative activity that has taken place. Va-y’chulu ha-shamayim v’ha-aretz v’chol tz’va’am – ‘Heaven and earth were finished and all their array’. The six ‘earth days’ are complete, now comes the seventh ‘heavenly’ day, God’s day, a day of timeless rest and cessation from all creation.
How interesting that the biblical author closes this account of creation with a reference to Shabbat. What is his message? What is he trying to convey to his listeners? The Bible is not one book, but many, yet references to the Sabbath are found in only a handful of those books. This is the only reference in the Book of Genesis. It does not appear as if any of the Patriarchs of Matriarchs observed Shabbat, and if they did there is no mention of it whatsoever. In fact, the next reference to Shabbat is in Exodus 16, when the Israelites having just left Egypt, are instructed to gather a double measure of manna (the divinely apportioned food) on the sixth day, so that the seventh day can be a day of rest on which they do not need to collect food. This double measure, by the way, is the origin of the two challot on Shabbat – a weekly reminder that once upon a time, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, gaining their freedom and a day of rest.
The creation story is recalled in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, where Israel is commanded to ‘remember’ the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. This act of ‘remembrance’ requires an inward and cognitive act of calling to mind God’s ceasing from work on the seventh day in order to remind us that we too are required to cease from our work. While in the Deuteronomy version of the Commandments, the command begins with the word shamor– ‘observe’ or ‘keep’ the Sabbath day, interpreted to refer to the outward and behavioural patterns required in our observance of Shabbat – lighting candles, reciting Kiddush, attending synagogue, studying Torah, celebrating Havdalah. If Exodus recalls Creation, Deuteronomy reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt, but that God brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. In other words, lest we ever forget, Shabbat is the sign between ourselves and God that freedom and dignity are central to the well-being of any individual and society and that a sign of freedom is the choice to free ourselves from the burdens and pressures of work and to rest on one day of the week.
This indelible three point connection between slavery, freedom and Shabbat provides a forceful ethical reminder that a period of rest and spiritual refreshment is vital to the nourishment and well-being of our souls. We cannot keep going forever. Just as our bodies become tired and worn-out physically, so too our spirits can ‘burn out’. It is precisely for this reason that Shabbat allows us a period of time to climb down from the carousel and create our own gentler movement in order to ensure that the external activity of our life is in alignment with our deepest consciousness. When we do not have time to reflect on our own ways and paths of life, the cost can be very high.
Two of my colleagues, Rabbi Rachel Benjamin and Rabbi Elli Sarah have created a Liberal Judaism publication on Shabbat. In the preface, they remark on the fact that Liberal Judaism has never produced any written guide on Shabbat, mainly, they say, because our expression of Judaism is guided by informed choice. We are not prescriptive. We don’t tell people how to lead their lives, we suggest that they may like to light candles or make Kiddush, but it is not in our vocabulary to say that observance of Shabbat requires a person to do this or that.
But for those of us who use electricity, who cook, who drive to synagogue, who find it difficult to put our mobile telephones away or switch off our computers, how should we celebrate Shabbat? Can we create for ourselves, a ‘God-day’ and experience that sense of timelessness that knows no bounds? What would happen if we created small ‘Shabbat moments’? What if we were to capture the spirit of Shabbat – its restfulness, its emphasis on friendships and family, on community and Jewish learning – perhaps by telephoning a friend just before Shabbat to wish them Shabbat Shalom, by lighting candles and reciting the blessing, by reading a short paragraph from a Jewish book? What if we postponed our household chores to another day of the week and moved our shopping to Sunday?
‘More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people,’ wrote the Jewish writer Achad Ha-Am (1856-1927), reminding us that the existence of the Jewish people is inextricably linked to its observance of this great ‘cathedral in time’ of Shabbat. Shabbatlaws need not be stringent. In Liberal Judaism, Shabbat should be celebrated with a lightness of touch; it is not only about what is not in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat, it is rather about extending hospitality and warmth to guests, allowing time for rest, inner reflection and thanksgiving for what is good in our lives. When we withdraw from the outward pressures and material expectations of our world, we are, in some senses, like God, ceasing from acquisitive activity and setting apart Shabbat as a sacred and dedicated day that is different from the rest of the week.
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