It's a simple word, and each week it's been spoken with relief by Jews the world over, since the first utterings of Genesis: Sabbath. Shabbat.
That is where the word and I part ways.
At my house, the word is liable to be spoken in haste by one of our 8-year-old twins: "I want to light the Shabbat candles! I want to light the Shabbat candles!" as the other one protests, "No, it's my turn, it's my turn!" Meanwhile my 6-year-old leans her head in her hand and says, "Do we have to say the blessings?" If we aren't having our standard meal of grocery-store rotisserie chicken and salad, we'll be blessing the pizza and beer. With no tablecloth. And don't even ask if we're kosher.
It wasn't always so slapdash at my house. And it may not be at yours (in which case, why are you reading this? Slumming? Send me some pointers instead!)
I remember observing Shabbat with my first husband, Gil. We were newlyweds running our own business from a cramped apartment on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., but on Friday afternoons we knocked off at three p.m. and gave ourselves time to prepare to sit down to a nice dinner for two. Some weeks I even started early, making challah from the recipe our rabbi had given us as a wedding gift.
"When we have kids," I said once, hopefully. "Let's start a tradition where we each bring something of beauty to the table on Sabbath."
An eternal marker of what's fleeting
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Rest, ceasing, and ending have everything and nothing to do with our Friday nights.
In many Jewish homes (yes, it's supposed to be all), Sabbath is the supreme holy day, observed every week from before sunset on Friday until three stars appear in the night sky on Saturday. Consecrated by God as the seventh and final day of rest to crown the toils of creation, Sabbath is supposed to be our safe zone each week.
Rabbinic law stipulates 39 categories of activity forbidden on the Sabbath, to be violated only if human life is in danger. From the getting and spending of money to the lighting of fires, human impact is removed from the world as much as possible. In Orthodox homes, lights and telephones are not used, there is no gardening or even watering of plants, no writing or tearing of paper. Hotpots and heating plates are left on overnight so that food can be heated without turning on appliances. The spiritual goal of all these restrictions on the everyday flow of life is to carve out a space in which to be more present, more mindful than at any other time of the week.
"When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time," said Abraham Joshua Heschel. "Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time..Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self."
The tyranny of things in space, indeed. I won't name names, but guess which big-box retailers see more of us each week than our local synagogue? We run around accumulating school supplies, household items, groceries by the bushel. In the mornings, we travel in two different directions to hit the school, the office, the university where I teach part-time. The twins spend the better part of their time with their mom, and those trips take 35 to 40 minutes in good traffic.
And then, too, there is the constant need to conquer the self, reflected in five different mirrors: our need to be right, to be in control, to be the best, to get the most attention. All the more in a family like ours, made of two separate families with their own language and ways, mixed thoroughly with equal parts of love, good intentions, hurt, loss, and regret. No use pretending it isn't there at the table with us, the uninvited guest that feeds on divorce, death, and disappointment. Maybe that unbidden guest is one reason Jews open the door wide to Elijah, traditional protector of children and reminder of those we love who are gone.
But in our own way, we keep Shabbat: We light our frail lights against the dark and bless the fruits of the earth before we consume them. Week by week, our children grow and someday will go away. On Fridays, all together, our fragile new family sits down to admire the delicate "architecture of time," as Heschel calls it: the seven-day milestone that so dependably comes to remind us that only time and change are permanent.
Why do we habitually speak of "keeping the Sabbath?" Time can't be kept, anymore than people. We should rather speak of how we hold the Sabbath, as close as we can, until it goes, how we hold a place for it every day for six days, looking forward to the closing of another week, to the sameness and the difference at our tables: the candles, the bread, the wine, the food, the children. In their young faces are married the features of people we love and have loved, people whose own faces once were so familiar and seemed so permanent that we forgot to love them at times, counting them among unchanging things that-like the Sabbath-we couldn't miss until they were gone.