Shabbat (Part 1) — Why Shabbat?

by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)

This article is the first in a series of at least four articles about the centerpiece and jewel of our faith. When they are complete, the articles will be put together as part of a larger project, “Shabbat in a Box,” that will hopefully help to make Shabbat more accessible. In this first article, I’ll begin by discussing the concept of Shabbat itself and what makes it unique.  Part 2 will address the laws of behavior on the sabbath day, Part 3 will discuss blessings, and Part 4 will focus on ways each of us can enhance our own celebration of Judaism’s holiest day.

So — Why Shabbat? Most religions, including our own, set side aside certain places, things, or even people as holy.  We externalize what is holy in the form of shrines, temples, books, symbols, gurus, power spots, totems, and more. These practices are definitely not illusory. They do fill our world with true enchantment of the holy. Judaism’s unique contribution to the world, however, is the idea of holy time. But not just once a year or in celebration of some great person or event. Instead, Shabbat brings holiness into our homes and our lives every week. Shabbat is holy technology that enables us to sanctify our Selves every week.

Obviously, getting each and every person to make room for holiness once every seven days is no easy feat. Some of us like to go off on a silent meditation retreat occasionally, but impelling an entire society to do so once a week would be nearly impossible. It is extremely difficult to get every single person to stop what they are busy doing, and then notice and even cultivate holiness in their lives on a regular basis. No wonder there are so many rules and regulations about what cannot be done on Shabbat! In fact, the Torah states that violation of Shabbat warrants the death penalty.

Trying for a moment not to be shocked by such severity, let us consider this penalty in more metaphorical terms. Perhaps we are being told that not observing the Shabbat is tantamount to killing ourselves as human beings.  In other words, the message may be this: Unless we take time out for rest on a very regular basis and simply enjoy our lives and each other, we will die from stress and unhappiness.

I admit that I am not very observant of Shabbat. I obey some restrictions, but not many.  For example, I usually never read Email on Shabbat, Email being the most burdensome aspect of my work. As a child, my family also forbid writing, sewing, or cutting on Shabbat, and we went to shul every Saturday morning. The most observant Shabbat I ever experienced, however, was an amazing experience and a real eye opener.

This most authentic Shabbat took place in the home of an extremely Orthodox family in Israel. These folks even tore up their toilet paper in advance — ripping a piece of toilet tissue was considered too much work for the holy day! No lights were turned on and off. No TV. Today that would include no computers, no iPhones, no texting. Instead, an authentic Shabbat restricts you to some very simple activities: eating together, talking, singing, praying, walking, reading, and sleeping. Unlike a silent meditation retreat, Shabbat is a joyful time of togetherness, enjoying nature and each other. It is a time of not doing, but instead, of simply being human with other human beings. It is a delight! My experience of an extremely observant Shabbat taught me that Shabbat truly is a beloved, a queen. We just need to make room for her in our homes and our hearts.