Lively Shabbat Overview

May 9, 2009

10 min read


It's the glue that holds together the Jewish family and the Jewish nation.

“I can’t believe it!” thought Mike, as he gazed upon the Jew dressed in a suit and tie, wrapped in a tallit, leading the Shabbat prayers. “Is that the Pizza Man? I barely recognize him!”

This was the first time that Mike had attended this particular synagogue, and seeing the Pizza Man made him think. Mike had grown up ”marginally” Jewish -- he attended Hebrew school, had a Bar Mitzvah, and visited the synagogue twice a year. But that was it. He would occasionally frequent the only kosher pizza shop in town (why not?), where the proprietor was an observant Jew known to all simply as the Pizza Man. He wore a beard, a chef’s cap, and a warm smile.

One of Mike’s colleagues at work had invited him to a Shabbat dinner, and they were to meet up at Congregation Shalom. Noticing how different the Pizza Man looked from his weekday garb was a shock to Mike, and this led him to an understanding of Shabbat. We tend to identify ourselves by career -- whether doctor, lawyer, garbage man (sanitation engineer) or pizza man. But on Shabbat, you cannot do, you can only be! One must identify with his true essence, not his job. Who are you? A soul! This is the essence of Shabbat. (heard from Rabbi Dov Heller)

When an entire community gets together once a week to focus on the spiritual side, it is a powerful tool that breaks down artificial barriers. I notice this in my own neighborhood in Jerusalem, where one can divide the neighbors between the “haves” and the “have-nots” -- those who own cars and those who don’t. All week long, the “have-nots” get rides from the “haves.” But Shabbat is the great equalizer, with everyone walking together to shul.

Shabbat: A Taste of Heaven

According to the Midrash, Moses informed the Jewish people that if they faithfully observe the Torah, they’ll merit to walk with God in the paradise of heaven.

The people replied, “Heaven? What’s Heaven?! No one ever returned from there to tell us what it’s like! Why promise us something we can’t relate to?”

Moses replied, “Good question!” and he immediately went to ask the Almighty for an answer.

“Tell them that if they fulfill my Torah, I will give them Shabbat -- a taste of Heaven right here in this world.”

How is Shabbat a taste of Heaven? There are many experiences in life where one can feel a letdown (a ”so what?” -- i.e. “I thought this would be fun, but the mountain climb or the new ice cream flavor wasn’t so great after all”). Yet after experiencing a real Shabbat, nobody asks “so what?” -- because Shabbat is clearly “that’s what!”

The World to Come is compared to Shabbat, and this world is compared to Friday afternoon. Just as one who wants to enjoy Shabbat must prepare on Friday -- by cooking the food, cleaning the house, and putting on fine clothes -- so too must one prepare in this world for the afterlife. If one goes fishing on Friday afternoon and returns home moments before sunset, he is stuck on Shabbat with cold food and a dirty house. So too, if one “goes fishing” in this world, he’s in trouble in Heaven! (heard from Rabbi Noah Weinberg)

To Keep and to Remember

The Ten Commandments are mentioned in the Torah in two places, Exodus 20:1 and Deut. 5:6. (After someone once informed me that he keeps the Ten Commandments, I asked if he observes Shabbat. His reply was, “I didn’t know that was one of them!”)

The verse in Exodus states, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy,” while in Deuteronomy the text says to “Keep the Shabbat day holy.” The Sages ask: Which expression did God really use -- “remember” or “keep”? The answer is that He said both simultaneously!

There are two aspects to Shabbat -- the don’t-do’s (“keep”), and the positive things to do (“remember”). It’s like if Rockefeller Center in New York belonged to the millionaire Rockefeller (all right, he sold it to the Japanese!), but it was donated for public use. According to state regulations, he must keep it closed at least one day a year, in order to maintain his private ownership; otherwise, it becomes public property. In other words, although he’s donated it to the public, don’t forget it belongs to Rockefeller!

Similarly, the world belongs to the Almighty, yet he allows humanity to make use of it -- as long as we remember Who the Real Owner is. Otherwise, we could easily forget and go about running the world as we see fit, and there’s no limit to what trouble that might cause! So one day a week, the Torah commands us not to do any act of creation, any act which demonstrates our mastery over the world.

What Constitutes “Work”?

The Torah proclaims that a Jew must rest on the Shabbat. What does “rest” mean? If someone carries heavy furniture up and down the stairs for the entire Shabbat, this does not constitute work -- yet plucking a leaf off a tree does!

Obviously, the issue is not physical labor (“How much did you sweat?”), but rather the concept of “creative activity.” The Midrash explains that after God created everything, He saw that the world was lacking one thing -- “rest.” So on Shabbat, God, so to speak, created rest. This means that “rest” is not just an abstaining from work, but is a positive state of mind of stressing the spiritual over the physical.

The Hebrew word melacha refers to the creative activities used to fashion the Tabernacle, as opposed to the more common word avodah” which implies physical labor.

The Written Torah does not define “work,” but the Oral Law (Talmud) explains how the prohibition of work on Shabbat is derived from the 39 categories of activities used to construct the Tabernacle. The Talmud categorizes these activities in familiar terms -- e.g. the bread-baking process from plowing, planting, and harvesting, until kneading and baking.

These are the ways that humans shape and affect the world. By refraining from creating on the Shabbat, we symbolically return the world to the exclusive ownership of its Creator. For six days of the week, we fashion materials into instruments of service, and on Shabbat we remember that God is Master of the World and everything must be dedicated to His will.

Main Course

Imagine that you’re lost in the woods with no idea in which direction to travel. Should you keep going forward, maybe in the wrong direction? No! You should take out your map and compass and figure out exactly where you are, and in what direction you’re traveling.

So too in life, we often live like the carload of guys speeding down the highway at midnight at 100 mph, and the driver asks his buddies, Where are we heading?” To which they reply, Shut up and keep driving! How often do we put our minds on automatic pilot and glide through life? Why do so many experience a midlife crisis ? It stems from not sufficiently contemplating where one is heading in life. ( Do I really want to be a doctor, or am I going to medical school just to make my mother happy? )

Shabbat is an opportunity to stop the world, I want to get off (not in the fatalistic sense). For a 25-hour period every week, one need not worry about his employer or teacher, or any assignment or deadline. He focuses only on himself, family and friends, and his relationship with the Almighty, to connect to genuine meaning in this world. This safeguards against spending our entire lives partaking of the appetizer and never getting to the main course!

The Physical Aspect

On Shabbat, we strive for harmony between the spiritual and physical aspects of life. One might have thought that a day dedicated to God should be spent as we do Yom Kippur, fasting and praying all day. Yet Judaism teaches us to regard the physical world as a means of spiritual attainment. We dress in our finest clothes and partake of delicious foods. The home is spotless. One can tell it is Shabbat -- in the kitchen and in the bathroom, in the synagogue and even in the streets!

And through it all, we proclaim that our physical enjoyment is all “in honor of Shabbat!”

Question: How does eating special foods and wearing special clothes honor Shabbat? It seems to only honor myself?

Answer: When serving the Queen of England, a waiter wears a tuxedo and not a t-shirt and jeans. Although the food might taste the same, the clothing brings great honor to the queen. Similarly with the honor of Shabbat.

The Bride and the Queen

In the prayers, Shabbat is compared to a bride (“Oh come my beloved, to greet the bride”) and a queen (“Come, oh Shabbat the queen”). In fact, the custom is to face the rear of the synagogue during the last stanza of “Lecha Dodi” to symbolize that we are actually greeting a royal guest.

Of course, the real guest we are greeting is the Presence of the Almighty, which descends upon us every Shabbat. We need only be on the correct wavelength to tune in!

Spirituality in the Realm of Time

Just as the Temple in Jerusalem (and its remnant, the Western Wall) is the place where one can best experience spirituality in the realm of space, so too Shabbat brings spirituality into the realm of time. A Jew can be in Hong Kong or Honolulu, and have Shabbat transport him to the Holy of Holies, where he can experience the Almighty from close range.

To appreciate it, Shabbat must be experienced. To describe Shabbat to someone who has never experienced it is like describing a sunset or a rainbow to someone who is blind. One of the most successful tools for turning Jews on to Judaism is Shabbat hospitality. Suddenly, an unaffiliated Jew might find himself in the home of a large family, with many children sitting around the table dressed in their special clothes and partaking of a sumptuous meal.

The guest is struck by the contrast of how the family is genuinely interacting (as opposed to watching television), and how the family meal proceeds uninterrupted by the telephone, Internet or radio. No one is rushing to a meeting or shopping or soccer practice. There is a genuine atmosphere of love and caring, as the family sings together (more than “happy birthday to you”!) and discusses Torah together.

Unfortunately, for many people today, this scene is rare.

This special Shabbat atmosphere is celebrated every week -- not just on Thanksgiving! Someone once told me that he enjoys Shabbat so immensely that even if someone convinced him there was no God, he would still keep Shabbat!

Between Me and the Jewish People

God proclaimed that Shabbat is the symbol of His special relationship with the Jewish people. When a store’s neon sign is lit up, even if the store is closed, we assume the store will re-open tomorrow. When the engagement ring is still on her finger, even if the couple had a disagreement, they are still engaged. However, if the store’s sign is gone, we understand that he is out of business, and if the ring is missing, we know the engagement is off.

Shabbat is the symbol of our relationship with the Almighty. Even if Jews do not fulfill all the precepts of the Torah, by keeping Shabbat the relationship is intact. When the Jewish community stops keeping Shabbat, it always signals widespread assimilation -- whether in 15th century Spain, 19th century Germany, or 20th century America.

Shabbat is the glue that holds our community and our nation together. As the saying goes, “More then the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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