Shabbos (sacred time) begins at sundown Friday with lighting the Sabbath candles.

The Jewish Sabbath is a day set aside each week for being instead of doing, connecting instead of getting, said 20th Century theologian and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic volume The Sabbath.

Shabbos is “sacred time,” a key concept in all forms of mindfulness, meditation, and spitiruality,  Mircea Eliade, who was not Jewish, said in his landmark work on comparative religion, The Sacred and the Profane.  Romainian-born Eliade’s obsolete definition of profane is simply the opposite of holy, without the modern English implication of dirty or obscene.

The sacred can’t exist without the profane, to make it feel elevated, spiritual, separate, and special. The Jewish Sabbath, with it’s sharp separation between sacred (kodesh), and ordinary, has that concept as well, but the Hebrew opposite of kodesh (chol) is a value-neutral condition, not obscene.

I don’t consider myself a Sabbath observer (shomer Shabbos), even though I go to temple on Friday night or Saturday morning for two hours about half the time.  Modernity, which I embrace fully and enthusiastically, makes it too inconvenient to devote 24 hours just to being and connecting.  My connecting time at temple gives me a brief, watered down taste of what the whole day should feel like.

Except for temple, my Shabbos does not feel that different from the rest of the week, and I consider that a loss – but not enough to get me to stop driving, watching TV, using my computer, and answering the phone on Shabbos, like real Sabbath-keepers do.  All but a few Jews compromise with the Sabbath laws to some extent. There are so many of them, and some are so inconvenient, that you almost have to.

When orthodox Jews took their synagogues with them to the suburbs,  most modern orthodox rabbis said it was OK to drive to shul, because distances were too great, and the Sabbath worship requirement was more important than the prohibition against driving on Shabbos.

When Shabbos Really Felt Holy

Shabbos dinner with my family Friday nights was different from the ordinary week

Shabbos felt really different and holy for one of my teen-age years, and as a camper, staff member, and director of Jewish camps with total immersion education programs. (The three synagogue federations and several Zionist youth movements sponsor chains of camps like that.)

In those enclosed, controlled environments, we could make Shabbos feel really diferent.  By the second week, Sabbath became the climax of the entire week, and your body and soul, and the air, felt different on Shabbos.

For a year, I extended my family’s Shabbos dinner and temple service to Saturdays. I walked two miles to the orthodox shul where my full-time Bible professor at Baltimore Hebrew University was part-time rabbi.  Traditional orthodox worship, with its old Eurpoean flavor and music, gave me a stronger feeling of connection to all Jews, living and dead, than the modernized, watered down Reform temple.  (Today, I would not spend four hours on Saturday morning at an orthodox synagogue even if there were one in my town.)

After services, my teacher took me to his house for the big mid-day Shabbos meal, and I told stories to his young children after that.  That took me to about 3 p.m., and sacred and ordinary time felt really different once it became a weekly practice.

Shabbos Mindfulness, and a Non-Jewish Mindfulness Teacher

Margaret Fletcher

Margaret Fletcher

When my non-Jewish friend, mindfulness expert Margaret Fletcher asked me to help her prepare a presentation about the Jewish Sabbath, I went to Rabbi Heschel’s book, which speaks of Sabbath as a Jewish form of mindfulness.  Margaret teaches mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality as Health Outreach Coordinator and meditation teacher for the Center for Health Promotion at Concord (NH) Hospital.  She is also the guiding teacher for the spiritual community White Mountain Sangha.

With her background, despite no knowledge of Judaism, she caught on right away when I explained Shabbos mindfulness — a day of constant awareness of the higher purpose and intention of the cosmos and everything you are.  Keeping kosher is mindful eating, for example.

She even understood Sabbath restrictions many Jews don’t:  why driving the car, turning on electric lights, using appliances, watching TV, answering the phone, and lighting the oven are forbidden on Sabbath.  These things save work, and Shabbos is supposed to be a rest from work.

Modern conveniences involve kindling fire, which used to be hard work, and is expressly forbidden in ancient Jewish law.  Though modern conveniences save work, they are about doing, not being, getting, not connecting.  They belong in ordinary time, not Shabbat’s sacred time.

And as we say at Havdalah (separation) when we separate the Sabbath from the regular week on Saturday evening, “Praise God who separates kodesh from chol (the sacred from the everyday).“  We thank God for the gift of separating them because we need both, and one can’t exist without the other.

Not using labor-saving devices on Shabbos keeps us mindful of the separation.

Modern Life Forces Compromises with Sabbath Holiness

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Ideally, the separation between Sabbath and the ordinary week should be so complete your whole body and soul feel different. That can only happen in the modern world in an all-Jewish ghetto where everyone can still walk to shul, where stores close early on Friday, and car traffic is diminished if not eliminated.

It also happens in Jewish camps with total-immersion, experiential Jewish education programs. Kids really feel that Shabbos is different, holier, than the other days.

Rabbi Heschel said, “If the whole world observed Sabbath two weeks in a row, it would bring about the coming of the Messiah.“  He did not mean a one-hour service on Friday night, and a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service Saturday morning.  Few things are more about getting and achieving than most modern American Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  He meant two weeks where observance makes Shabbos feel holy for 24 hours.

Modernity forces so many compromises with sacred Sabbath time that I see no way two watered down Sabbaths can bring about the Messiah.  It is just not separate or holy enough.



5 Comments for this entry

  • Marta Braiterman says:

    I liked this article a lot, especially your honest look at modernity
    and how that relates to the separating activities to create the sacred
    time of Shabbat that Heschel explained so well. I like your
    descriptios of the camp time, and wish I had that at some point in my
    growing up but didn’t. Had other things, but the setting aside of the
    full day, not so much.

    There’s an approach to Shabbos that I take where I don’t go into any
    stores (the commerce just jangles my nervous system) and wait, even to
    buy I don’t buy-or-sell for the 24 hours. But I found an
    article once that talked about the choice to go Saturday afternoon to
    watch a movie, go to a live concert, art exhibit, or some cultural
    “viewing/appreciating” experience which — although it violates lots
    of the written Sabbath rules to drive or buy the ticket, still works
    for me in the afternoons to help be with a Shabbos mood.

    I also never, ever want to put down my communication devices for 24
    hours…to me it’s like breathing. Some of my inlaws don’t answer a
    phone for 24 hours, but recently I’ve learned they monitor their
    answering machines and listen in case there’s some family emergency or
    whatever. I suppose if they then hear something they think is
    “life-threatening” they’d lift the phone and take all forms of action
    because saving a life trumps all the Sabbath laws. Living in the
    Catskills as we did for a while, I used to get extra concerned when
    I’d hear the Chassidic ambulances driving through town on a
    Saturday…that had to be something really bad for someone somewhere.

    I reread the sentence twice about the modern American Bar Mitzvah, so
    true. Ideally it should be about “being” in the sense of “today I AM a
    grown person” so that I can DO (good deeds) in order to BE (with God).
    American party culture has so distracted families that yes, the
    getting (gifts) distracts the kids; the parents (since the mid-90′s in
    my experience) now do a speech about the child’s achievements in this
    or that activity (public school, extra-curricular) which gets
    competitive somehow, although it’s supposed to just show the parent’s
    joy. Why doesn’t that wait for the evening party to boost the child’s
    self esteem = brag? As a congregant, another side of me likes the
    parents talking about the child simply because I get to know the child
    a bit that way, and I become introduced to the entire family at the
    service. that’s not necessary for those families that already bring
    children around occasionally enough that I know them before their big
    day, but for those to whom Bar Mitzva is more like a clarinet recital
    than a real introduction into Jewish lifestyle I never see those kids
    much at services as they grow up. It’s so very special to see children
    hang out enough at weekly (or occasional) services that they are known
    to the community BEFORE they turn 13!

  • Ken, it’s great to read the post-conversation reflection. I am observing my own defined Sabbath on Sunday mornings this summer, and so thought a lot about our conversation this morning as I was going about my time. Is it okay to wash the breakfast dishes? How about playing cards with my 11-year-old? Since no one gave me rules, I’m having to decide for myself. It makes for an interesting inner dialogue, at least until I codify my own practice. Thank you for your help! ~ Margaret

    • Ken!Brait1 says:

      Unless you’re a “Halakhic Jew.” who believes Jewish law must be followed literally, the Sabbath laws are advisory, not mandatory. Everybody makes their own choices based on what is meaningful and do-able.

      I’d say quality time with your child would override any law in a Holy Book. Washing dishes could be considered a health issue. As such, it would take priority over any Sabbath law, even for a Halakhic Jew.
      Halakhic Jews make choices too.

      The very orthodox rabbi I was close to in high school shaved his face with a razor before synagogue in the mornng. That’s against strict Jewish law. So did Rabbi Neuberger, head of one of the most orthodox Talmudic academies in the country. But few of the students and teachers at that Yeshiva did.

      The huge break, that I mentioned in the story, was when modern orthodox rabbis in the suburbs started telling their congregations it was OK to drive their cars to shul. They said the positive requirement to worship as a community was more important than the rule against driving cars.

      So make your own choices and form your own mindful ritual and synthesis.

  • Robin Nafshi says:

    Nice, Ken. I think we liberal/progressive Jews have to make the choices for ourselves that allow us to do as you write — observe Shabbat and live in the modern world. I try to make my day feel different from the rest of the week. I love taking the dogs on a long walk on Shabbat. I won’t shop, unless it’s grocery shopping, something I LOVE to do. I don’t do email. I have spent those glorious Shabbats — services in the morning, lunch and discussion in the afternoon, s’udat shlishit later in the afternoon, ending with Havdalah. I loved it. I would do it weekly if I could find a group who wanted to. More likely, I’ll be walking the dogs or on a trail ride with Shira and the horses!

    • Ken!Brait1 says:

      Once you have free choice to create your own Sabbath rituals, there’s no limit to how creative and personal a synthesis you can make. I need one more option right now.

      I’d love to be in that Saturday group with you. My Shabbos does not feel different enough as it stands. The long, restorative Sabbath walk is no longer restorative for me. It hurts, and can’t last more than a few minutes. I never adequately replaced that activity, which I never missed. When my body tells me to sleep Saturday mornings, I have to, because it only demands sleep when I really need it.

      You got me thinking of the little Hassidic shul in the old neighborhood, in a private house, with the sanctuary downstairs, and the rabbi and his wife living upstairs. The men used to sit on Saturday afternoon, and listen to the rabbi talk about a holy book. I could follow the Hebrew text, but the discussions were all in Yiddish, so I didn’t go very often. I was attracted by the authentic European flavor, and the fellowship (sic; they were all fellows).

      My immigrant great grandfather Yitzhak Fedder understood that American children had to make their own syntheses. He did not object to his grandkids playing baseball, going to movies, or riding the streetcar on Shabbos, as long as they didn’t become nothing, and stayed connected to family. Some observance was part of that connection. He did his thing, set an example, but was not rigid or dictatorial. His children and grandkids kept the basics and stayed connected, even after he and his wife were gone.

      Other immigrants, like my Grandpa Braiterman’s father, who demanded strict observance, often wound up with angry children alienated from Judaism and the previous generations. Grandpa Braiterman rejected his father in favor of secular Zionism, not American commerce, but the rejection was complete and mutual. His brothers and sisters gave up everything, until it was time to send the children to Hebrew school. Sending the children (not going) was their only connection, unless they joined a Fedder fammily celebrations.

      Modern America, with all its secular shortcomings and distractions, also gives us a much richer pallet to create our own Sabbath syntheses. The spiritual practices Margaret Fletcher teaches serve many Jewish people well. Book discussions on Saturdays are in the Sabbath spirit. Anything outdoors that’s either restful or energizing or restorative. And, for me, a spiritual group activity is better because my full-time work as a writer is solitary. For me, being alone is not lonely, but it ain’t spiritual either.

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