Thursday, May 31, 2007

Approaching Shabbat

Here are some (solicited) suggestions I made to my sister about approaching Shabbat observance.

Going from a secular lifestyle to full-blown Shabbat observance requires significant lifestyle modifications. Adjusting to these changes can be stressful. This stress increases geometrically with the number of people affected by the shifting household rules.

Marriage is a sack race. When a couple (or family) makes this transition, it is important to move together, in the same direction, at a similar pace. This requires cooperation, accommodation, and communication. Adding ritual at the expense of family harmony is short-sighted and counter-productive.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tzaddok said, "Don't make the Torah a spade to dig with" Certainly it shouldn't be a sledgehammer to hit your spouse over the head with, either.

The Aseret HaDibrot (usually translated "Ten Commandments, but "Ten Statements" is more accurate.) are found twice* in the Torah. We learn a lot from the subtle differences between the wording of the two. One of these differences is in the commandment to observe Shabbat.

In parshat Yitro the Torah commanded us "zachor" ("remember") the Sabbath day to keep it holy. In parshat V'etchanan, the Torah instead uses the word "shamor" ("guard") the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Both of these are vital aspects of Sabbath observance.

If you (or your partner) are not ready to take on the whole of Shabbat observance, try focusing less on becoming "Shomer Shabbat" than becoming, what I call, "Zocher Shabbat."

Instead of beginning by implementing a long list of restrictions and violations, seek ways to add beauty and distinction to the day:

  • If you're not ready to abstain from television for all of Shabbat, resolve to watch it mindfully. Make a distinction between watching a planned movie and watching the evening news. It matters less what the distinction is, than that you've made one.
  • If you come across a wonderful treat during the week, set it aside to enjoy it on Shabbat.

  • Save the most wonderful meal of the week for Friday night or Saturday lunch.

  • If you're not up for a whole Saturday chock-a-block with synagogue services and heavy meals, don't fill it up with laundry and errands. Make Saturday morning the time for a leisurely brunch, and save the food shopping and vacuuming for Sunday, instead.

  • Try to do something (however small) every day of the week, with intent, to
    prepare for Shabbat. Say to yourself, "this is for next Shabbat" as you set aside the candles on a Monday, clear off the dining room table on Thursday afternoon, buy flowers on Friday morning, etc.

  • Imagine the week as it is in the Jewish calendar, with Sunday as the first day of the week. The week has a rhythm that builds to a crescendo: Shabbat is the grand finale of the week.

  • Whatever the menu, serve Shabbat meals on your nicest dishes. Sit at the table. Serve wine. Use cloth napkins.

  • Wear jewelry.

  • On Saturday, indulge in a late-afternoon nap.

  • Stroll in the park instead of going to the mall. Play Frisbee.
    Read for pleasure.

  • Save arguments and upsetting conversations for another day. Strive to taste every flavor of peace on Shabbat.

The Zachor Shabbat approach first adds, rather than subtracts from the activities in order to distinguish Shabbat from the rest of the week.

The goal, of course, is both zachor Shabbat and shamor Shabbat. However, you can't run every mile of a race at once. If the path you're on leads toward your destination, don't sweat taking a scenic path.

You can't sprint in a sack race. Remember to follow this path together as a couple (or family), because, as the less-enthusiastic partner is likely to point out, it has a slippery slope. Just know that the incline, while slick, slants upward.

Recently, I posted a comment at my my sister's blog about my transition to keeping Shabbat:

I started keeping shabbat when I got married. Although I enjoyed Shabbat for the first few months, I didn't "get" Shabbat - the feeling of time transformed, the oasis in my schedule, the tangible relaxation after the candles are lit, etc. - until I had to give something up for Shabbat.

It wasn't until after I refused my manager's adamant directive to work on Friday night and Saturday on a very visible project whose deadline had slipped, that I was able to feel Shabbat. I had to defend the integrity of Shabbat's borders before the I could know the value of her contents.

My manager was frustrated and angry with me on Friday afternoon. I was just out of college, and newly observant. This was my first job, and I had been recently promoted from test to design.

I'm a conflict-avoider in the tamest of situations. It wasn't easy.

I came in as soon as Shabbat was over, and worked late into the night. I returned early Sunday morning and continued to debug the problem. I couldn't figure it out. It was very scary. I was sure I was going to be fired.

On Monday, I learned that, had I come in that Shabbat, the problem would not have been solved any sooner. The problem I was supposed to solve wasn't in the software I owned, but in an area of code that belonged to a different department. It was broken in such a way that I would not have been able to detect it from my lab.

My boss was relieved, and enthusiastically thanked me for "working all weekend." I heard him on the phone with the other department's manager later that day, telling him that he (the other department's manager) should thank me for my hours.

That was twenty years ago. I have been reaping the benefits from that weekend, and from every other time that I have had to sacrifice some activity in order to observe Shabbat, ever since. I've found there can always be something so pressing that compromises with Shabbat's boundaries seem the most expedient path.

Just like quitting smoking, just like diet and exercise, just like resisting the snooze button, the long-term rewards are easily obscured by the tyranny of false urgency.

Observing Shabbat has shown me that, while there will always be another software bug, another overdue project, another frustrated manager, another overflowing inbox, another quotidian emergency, there will never be another NOW.

Clearing away time for Shabbat renews this perspective every week. I think I would never have understood this, without my "moment of choice".

I've started collecting links to stories and guides about making the transition to Sabbath observance. I hope to update this list as I find more: (Link recommendations welcome, please!) (The link list below is a collection-in-progress:)

Frum stories

Other worthwhile stories

Frum guides

Other worthwhile guides

*Here's the text of the two differing versions of the commandment to keep Shabbat: (See also this article by Rabbi B. Wein.)

ז זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.Exodus Chapter 20:7
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
יא שָׁמוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ,ְה' אֱלקַיךָ. Deuteronomy Chapter 5:11
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD thy God commanded thee.

5 comments, so far. Add yours now!

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Mark Silver said...

Shalom Carolyn,

I hope you had a wonderful shabbat. I just wanted to thank you for the post- I'm not sure if you have trackbacks set up on your blog, but I wanted you to know that I referenced you in this post:
Taking on spiritual practice in your business (without killing yourself)

Thanks for the insights. I'm glad that I came across your blog through Liz Strauss. May the sweetness of Shabbat carry you gracefully through your week.


Juggling Frogs said...

Hello Mark,

Thank you for this link. I hadn't expected this post to apply to business. You have an interesting take on it.

Thank you for the kind words and warm wishes. I hope you have a wonderful week as well!

All the best,

zahavalaska said...

Thanks for your blog. I've enjoyed reading it a lot, and your creative parshat-cooking is inspiring. I read your approaching Shabbat article and agree with what you have to say. I've slipped on my Shabbat observance a little bit lately, and I'm working on bringing it back up.
One thing I'm interested in hearing your opinion on is this: for years I have worked in childcare programs that close at 6pm on Fridays. Now, sometimes this leaves time for candle lighting time, often it does not. Aside from working in a childcare program that closes early on Friday (not an option in my community) what can one do about this? Candle lighting can be at it takes half an hour to get home. I used to have a co-worker at another childcare place I worked who considered himself frum. He worked till 6pm on Fridays. He said he believed there was an allowance for traveling home from work, is that true?

Juggling Frogs said...


Thank you and welcome! I'm glad you enjoy the blog.

I'm honored that you asked me these questions. Figuring out how to answer them led me to discover your wonderful blog.

I enjoyed reading about your eclectic life in Alaska, and how you are facing the challenges of reconciling contradictory yet compelling spiritual drives. I also appreciate your honest and thoughtful posts on healing from cancer. May your latest MRI show a wonderful result, and may you have a complete and speedy recovery.

I hesitate to share my opinion of your question, because I'm not a halachic authority. I'm also orthodox, which further disqualifies me from answering questions about other groups' standards. Your situation is even more complicated that it first appears, as I don't know what obligations a Reform conversion imposes on a person.

After reading about your strong but tentative Orthodox striving, I urge you to seek personal guidance from a rabbinic authority.

People who travel on paved roads need maps. How much more so for you, machete in hand, trimming the foliage, cutting a new path through the woods. You need a qualified person who knows you in person, not an printed English edition of the Talmud, and not an anonymous housewife 3378 miles away.

Having and using a rabbi when you encounter a halachic or religious roadblock is fundamental to practicing Judaism.

I can only tell you that I have only benefited from anything I've had to give up in order to observe Shabbat. In fact, I believe that you can't "get" Shabbat fully, until after successfully facing a difficult choice in favor of its observance.

The "exception" your friend mentions is not halachic, and, frankly, a bit disturbing. The only exception I'm aware of, is when a person's life is at stake, such as a medical emergency.

There is a critical difference between saying "What I'm doing isn't halachic, but this is what I can handle right now" and "What I'm doing is okay" qualifying the behavior with a made-up exception. Everyone falls short of ideal. A person who recognizes falling short, rather than adjusting the ideal, is on a higher spiritual level. Your friend's attitude is dangerous to your religious growth.

You, however, are to be commended for your attitude. You said, "I've slipped on my Shabbat observance a little bit lately, and I'm working on bringing it back up." I think this is the essence of teshuva.

(L'havdil) You make me think of one of my favorite poems, (ironically full of mythical Greek gods and such, but still a great poem - but don't click if this offends you) Ithaka by Cavafy. Do you know it?

(I'm thinking of the "ask that your way be long", not the "find her poor" part, please!)

I wish you the best of luck, and hope to hear from you again.

All the best,

zahavalaska said...

I have to agree with everything you have told me--and honestly I knew some of it beforehand, especially that I need to get my thoughts together to talk to the "other" rabbi in my town/state. (It is often emotionally challenging to be in a small community that is very administratively divided...) When I asked you, I knew you weren't the person to ask, I just felt so drawn and connected to your perspectives. You have again given me a lot to think about, but also the reminder to take my life at my own pace--
It took me a couple of times of reading the poem for it to 'click'--but it really resonates with me, and I want to embrace that my way may be long. Whenever I reflect on my involvement in the Jewish community since I first worked at a Jewish summer camp as a teenager, it is of course full of wonderful 'first' and unique moments, and there's no reason to rush my future, whether it may be becoming Orthodox or remaining a "Reform friend of the Orthodox." I've been blessed to experience the power of the ways halacha structures life--from toiveling dishes and Pesach kashering (at my old workplace) to tzniut and Shabbat; I will just have to figure out what my commitment to that power will be. Toda, for taking the time to write back to me so kindly.

If you liked this article, congratulations! You have great taste. Please brew yourself a cup of coffee.
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