Keeping the Sabbath

It’s ironic to be posting this only hours after the Sabbath has begun, but in a way, it’s also fitting. Perhaps only slightly, but even the slightest trace is enough to make something significant at all.

The Jewish Sabbath is known as Shabbat in Hebrew and is observed from Friday evening through Saturday night. Typically, it lasts twenty-five hours, to ensure that Shabbat is kept from beginning to end without any accidental breaking of the Sabbath, so to say. To keep Shabbat means to observe it by reciting special prayers, lighting Shabbat candles, and resting–that is, not doing work. “Work,” however, is traditionally defined as more than just what we don’t want to do and, for the most observant, often involves not driving, not spending money, and not using any electronics–like computers. Someone who keeps Shabbat is said to be “shomer shabbas” in Hebrew.

For a long time, I’ve not kept Shabbat. A long time ago, however, I did.

My entire childhood was marked weekly by candlelighting and reciting the Shabbat prayers every Friday evening and Saturday night. We cleaned the house on Friday (or sometimes Saturday) and tried to make the day special. But even so, we never really observed all the tenets of keeping Shabbat: we readily turned on and off lights, watched TV, drove places, and even spent money. It never really meant much to me, doing these little things; after all, I said, if the objective is to not work, why should I stop doing something if it doesn’t feel like work to me?

That’s been my philosophy for a long time, but whereas it still works, I find myself longing to make Shabbat something special again. For the past six years or so, since my parents separated, and probably before that as well, we haven’t kept Shabbat like we once did. I could delve for hours going miles deep into why this might be so, but the reasons why are in the past, and now is in the present, and now is where I need to focus my energy.

While I was in Israel this past summer I became friends with a number of other Jews who are shomer shabbas. I admired them for that, and I found myself wanting to be able to follow their footsteps. However, as I said to one of them one Shabbat, I couldn’t see myself not doing all of these things–they’ve simply become too much a part of me. He shrugged and said to start with the little things, to work your way up to doing something more. That piece of advice resounded deeply with me and reminded me of a saying I once heard, that rabbis don’t say someone isn’t observant, they say that someone isn’t observant yet. That subtle difference is significant in that bestows upon even the least observant person the potential and the ability to become as observant as anyone else, and it’s that potential that I’m trying to seize now.

Little things.

That’s where I’m at as I start this journey, refraining from the little things to help train myself to one day be able to set aside the bigger things for a bit, too. Right now there’s only been a couple things I’ve stopped doing on Shabbat–such as shaving or cutting my nails–and when I find myself reaching for my shaver or nail clippers on Shabbat, I find that something special happens. There’s a tingling in my fingers and a hum in my mind that reminds me it’s still Shabbat and I’m not supposed to do work doing such things as these. The thought makes me smile, and for now, it gives me hope that I’ll be able to become even more observant as I continue down this path of making Judaism a greater part of my life.


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