Redefining Shabbat, again and again

I grew up in a home that was not shabbat observant. While we sometimes went to synagogue, we also went shopping, to the movies, and to Memorial Stadium. As a participant in NCSY, I had an idea of what it meant to be shomer shabbat, but I also had the notion that this kind of extremism was only for the “frummies.”
electric shabbatAs a young adult, studying for a Master’s in Jewish Education at HUC, I began to question what it meant to work in Jewish education without actually observing one of the central mitzvot of Judaism. I ultimately dropped out of the program, went to a wonderful women’s yeshiva in NYC, and became significantly more observant for a number of years. I never identified as Orthodox or as a Ba’alat Teshuvah, but I did take halachah, and shabbat in particular, very seriously.
This worked for me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, more or less. Observing shabbat didn’t feel like a sacrifice – I had meals to prepare, meals to attend, walks in the park, and a large group of peers all making the same kinds of choices. But once I left this community of observant but thoughtful, even progressive, Jews, I found that most other observant communities were decidedly uncomfortable for me for a myriad of reasons that I won’t delve into right now. And I realized that for better or worse, my commitment to halachah wasn’t based on faith, or a sense of being commanded to observe mitzvot, but based on wanting to belong to a community of like-minded Jews. Once I lost that community, I couldn’t really sustain much of my shabbat observance . Then I fell in love and married and non-Jew, and it became just that much more difficult.
Now that I have a daughter in day school, and still work as a Jewish educator, I’m realizing I need to re-think, once again, my approach to shabbat. What does it mean to light candles, have shabbat dinner, go to shul now and then, but otherwise treat shabbat like any other day? On the other hand, what does it mean to try to insist on a strict observance of shabbat when there are almost no shomer shabbat families in our town, and when my husband isn’t interested in going along for the ride (or should I say, the walk….)
So, I’m taking slow steps. This week, I quietly decided to turn off the computer for all of shabbat. As someone who spends way too much time on my laptop, this felt big, and I kept the decision private until Saturday night, when Ella heard me telling a friend at a havdallah potluck about my experiment.
Tonight, in the bath, Ella announced, entirely of her own accord,  “I think I’d like to stop watching tv on shabbat.” I told her I thought it was a great idea. I’ll remind her on Friday, although I won’t insist. Whether she follows through or not, it was a great reminder to me that even small changes on shabbat, which used to seem kind of ridiculous to me (either you keep shabbat or you don’t, right?) really matter now that I’m a parent. One of my challenges is to make sure we add to the do’s and not just the dont’s – that we find more families to celebrate with, and more ways to celebrate shabbat – as we consider eliminating various kinds of work.

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Sarah Buttenwieser

posted June 21, 2009 at 9:33 pm

amy, does it seem (or , maybe it does seem) that if you were more connected the organized offerings you’d have community (more?) for the shabbat slowing/changes or is there really that little here?
living where i do i am fairly aware of comings & goings toward the building.

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posted June 21, 2009 at 10:01 pm

I’d say I’m about as firmly connected as you can be. (saw remy at shul this week, by the way!) There are a lot of people there, and I know an awful lot of them, but there’s just a different kind of shabbat culture here than what I’m wishing for. I’m putting in a lot of energy, both volunteer and professional, towards changing that, though.

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Morah Mary

posted June 22, 2009 at 11:04 am

Amy, I think the mindful approach you’re taking will ultimately end up leading you to a recognition/observance of Shabbat as a special break from our every-day-ness.
Rabbi Brad Artson has a great book about incremental steps towards a variety of Jewish observances. The book’s called “It’s a Mitzvah!” I wish it had been available when I began to search for ways to integrate practice into our lives.

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posted June 22, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Brad is my cousin!

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lisa oram

posted June 22, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I, too, have tried to turn off my computer on Shabbat (like you, i often feel WAY TOO connected to the keyboard). I don’t always succeed at being unplugged, but when I do, I feel refreshed – which makes me feel like I’ve had a Shabbat. I love that Ella learned from you how to make her own Shabbat – to divide between ordinary and holy. Carry on! P.S. Congrats on job, but I’ll miss you much at BA.

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posted June 22, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Sarah – the posting below is from Rebecca Plaut (from F&W days) . . . good to hear from you!

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posted June 22, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for opening up this topic, the answers to which are ever-evolving. I search for ways to make Shabbat about the “do”s — we now have a Shabbat dance we do after lighting candles (with lots of spinning, which my daughter loves).
One of the high points is we have a box of Shabbat toys which we take out only on Shabbat. It definitely helps define Shabbat for Sarah.

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posted June 23, 2009 at 9:48 am

I’m never realized how many families like ours (not shabbat observant in an orthodox way) make concrete and meaningful choices about what they do and don’t do.

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posted June 23, 2009 at 11:06 am

Amy, your posts make me think so much I often don’t get around to commenting! (I really enjoyed your recent Shabbat meme and thoughts about shul.) And this post in particular reads like the conversation I keep having in my own head. Probably the hardest thing for me is how to move forward without creating dissonance between myself and my family. And then, what will it mean for my son if I don’t touch the computer but my husband watches TV? I don’t have a whole lot of answers, so I can only hope that striving means something…

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posted June 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Amy, thank you for the thoughtful post. And also for echoing what my family and I are going through, albeit from a different place.
While I recognize, appreciate and give thanks that Judaism approves of our wrestling – encourages it even – it’s still hard to reconcile the feelings of hypocricy when I wear a kippah at home and even in the car, but pull it off before walking into work. Double the guilt if I have to (have to? do I really HAVE to?!?) stop on the drive home from shul. I can justify the drive – we live 20 miles away – but anything else just sets me on edge.
*And I wonder if it should*. To echo Tamar, I don’t want to create dissonance if I feel drawn to a different (I hesitate to use words like “higher” or “deeper”) level of observance. Nor do I want to feel guilted into it, either.
Then again, I’m lucky that my family and I seem to be on this journey together, and we’re willing to recognize that it may be awkward at various steps along the way. We try to remember that God understands if we totally screw something up and have to call a do-over.
As for the original point – observing Shabbat – my family and I have created our own community in a sense, inviting people over to experience Shabbat with us. Over the last seven years it’s had the most amazing impact on our desire to learn more, try more (or try different, if not exactly “more”), be open to other, etc.
A frum friend of mine (a ba’al tshuvah) made two observations that have stuck with me. One on change: “My whole life I ate sausage pizza. And then there was a day when I didn’t any more. I don’t let anyone hold what I *did* against me as some invalidation of what I *do* now.” The other point on observances: if you light candles, then go out to dinner and a movie, Judaism says “yay, you lit candles”. You don’t have to light them 2 more times to make up for going out to dinner and the movie. The point being, the mitzvot you pick up are to be celebrated. The ones you don’t observe now aren’t sins, they’re simply missed opportunities that you may decide to take advantage of somewhere down the road.
Leon (

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Leigh Ann

posted June 30, 2009 at 10:35 am

This is the struggle of the moment in my house as well. Of course we drive on Shabbat because of my work obligations, and that’s sanctioned by Conservative halachah. But what do we do with the rest of the day? For me, it IS about a sense of commandedness. I can appreciate the argument that it’s important to feel as though I’ve had a Shabbat, but on a certain level I know that driving (lighting a fire) is expressly forbidden on Shabbat from the Bible. We don’t live in a community with an eiruv, mostly because we don’t want to, but we have a toddler who gets VERY antsy stuck in the same place all day. So, what do we do? We drive to the park. That argument doesn’t stack up against the “God commanded us not to do that” argument very well, in my mind, but for some reason I can’t quite make the executive decision that we’re going to be shomer. I can’t figure out what’s holding me back. I only know that, for some reason, I’m okay with letting it.
So, yeah. Big conflict in our house and in my heart. Thank you for writing about it so thoughtfully.

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Frume Sarah

posted August 5, 2009 at 2:11 pm

A beautiful post…and thoughtful comments.
I am completely in love with social media…and I shut it ALL off on Shabbat. I know that it sometimes drives my family (and my congregants) crazy, but I just won’t have my Shabbos ruined by emails, FB, Twitter, etc. It can be really, really hard some weeks. But it I find it liberating to not have to worry about being “plugged in” for 25 hours each week.

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