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It's Still Shabbat

May 9, 2009 | by Arwen Kuttner

What kind of Shabbat will it be in the hospital emergency room?

My husband is in the kitchen, cooking our Shabbat dinner. I am resting. It's one of those days when I am so exhausted that it takes me an entire day to do a single task. Today it was my job to clear the table of my books and papers, but at 6 o'clock I'm still not finished. I am just too tired.

As observant Jews we look forward to Shabbat all week long as a sanctuary from our cares of the week. We structure the holiness of the day with rules about not turning on and off lights, not using the phone, not cooking. The specific “do nots,” though challenging, help us create a day that is completely set apart, a day of holiness.

With the affects of chemotherapy, I'm suffering from extreme fatigue.

If things were normal now I would be preparing for Shabbat as if it were the guest described as a bride or queen in the “Lecha Dodi” song we sing at the beginning of Shabbat. Usually I enjoy the frantic scramble to prepare. Having a rush of chaos settle suddenly into calm upon the lighting of candles has always helped me find the sanctity in the day. But I just can't do it.

What makes things different now is that two and a half months ago I was diagnosed at age 26 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I've been living during that time not only with the cancer, but also with the affects of chemotherapy, including extreme fatigue. There is only one week until my next treatment is due and by now I should be feeling a bit better, getting my energy back and becoming more active. For some reason the energy has not returned. I've been short of breath, and the past two nights I've been awaken by fevers, one time shivering so badly that my hands could barely steady a cup of tea.


An hour passes, then an hour and a half, and still I'm too tired to get up. My face feels hot. My oncologist has said we should call if my temperature reaches 101. When I read 101.8 on the thermometer, I pick up the phone.

“You need to go to the emergency room,” the on-call doctor says. “They'll take a look at you and may admit you overnight.”

“Do I have to?” I ask, dreading explaining my religion to nurses. “My Sabbath is starting soon. It will be hard to celebrate in the hospital.”

Driving is one of Shabbat's prohibited activities. While almost any rule can be broken to save a life, I am still stuck in the details. If I go to the hospital now, I risk being well enough to have to drive back. If I stay home, I risk having to drive in later. I am too muddled to even conceive of the idea that my body is actually in danger. My brain is just too scattered.

It is now 7:50. Candle lighting time, which marks the beginning of Shabbat, is at 8:42 this week. I count the minutes ahead, calculating just how long we can wait before we make the final decision to go. I take my temperature again and again, hoping that miraculously the fever will break. It vacillates. 101.8...101.7... 101.9... 101.8 again...

Uri, the practical husband, has already made the decision for me and is packing our dinner into a brown paper bag. Reluctantly, I throw a change of clothing, a siddur and a stack of books into my backpack.

I check my temperature one last time. It's dropped to 101.5. Stubborn, I still argue the merits of having Shabbat in the comfort of our home.

“No, we're leaving,” says Uri firmly, and we get into the car.


Candle-lighting time passes unceremoniously just after we arrive in the emergency room. Doctors rush to and fro. Medical equipment is everywhere. There are big machines, computers and a baby crying somewhere. I am led to a white and curtained room where I am instructed to change into a hospital gown and lie on a gurney in the center of the room. I hear doctors' voices outside as they search for a nurse who knows how to access the catheter implanted in my chest through which I receive my chemo drugs every three weeks.

Overwhelmed, I stare at the ceiling.

“It's Shabbat, the holiest part of the week, and I'm stuck in this place,” I think to myself, and self-pity rolls in on cue. Tears come to my eyes.

Then I remember the strange commandment not to cry on Shabbat. I've always resented this mitzvah. Beyond the rules that structured the actions we do on Shabbat, this mitzvah seemed too limiting. But now I ask, for just a moment, why such a rule would exist.

The light in the room seems to shift, and so does my experience.

The purpose of that mitzvah, I realize at this moment, is to guard Shabbat as a time of joy, joy under any and all conditions. As this simple thought passes through my mind, the light in the room seems to shift, and so does my experience.

“I'm in the hospital” I say to myself, “but it's Shabbat. It's Shabbat.”

Every other time in my life when I've said, “It's Shabbat,” I have felt a complete sense of relief. Suddenly, this week is no different. I have stopped worrying. I may be in the emergency room, but Shabbat is all around me, sheltering and protecting.

I will be admitted that night to cure an infection that has attacked me while my immune system is low. After eating our Shabbat meal in a darkened hospital room, nurses will wake me up throughout the night to draw blood and check my vital signs. In the early morning hours my fever will spike at 103 and I will surrender myself to the care of doctors and nurses.

But as we wait in the emergency room for the doctor to come and care for me, Uri hands me my siddur. To my surprise, I feel real joy as I work my way through the Friday evening prayers, one after another, until I sing “Lecha Dodi” to welcome the Shabbat Queen.

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