Shomer Shabbos: Finding Meaning in the Observance of Shabbat by Ivy Helman

20151004_161012One of my first posts on was about ways to re-soul on Shabbat. Since I haven’t yet revisited any topic in the years I’ve been writing for this blog, I thought now is the perfect time and Shabbat is the perfect subject matter. Why is now the perfect time? Why is Shabbat the perfect subject matter? These two questions share the same answer. I’ve been grappling with discovering a meaningful observance in the midst of my new teaching endeavors.

I teach, study and read about Judaism every day of the working week (and often Sundays) for 8 to 10 hours a day (sometimes more). Don’t get me wrong, I love it! I also practice Judaism every day and know there is a difference between the two. However, while I hesitate to admit it, the last thing I want to do on Shabbat is immerse in Jewish prayer, song and feasting. Why? Because in so many ways, my study and preparation for class brings me closer to my identity, helps me strengthen my faith and commits me more to its observance. However, when it comes to Shabbat, traditional observance feels like work and does not re-soul me the way it should.

Traditionally, Shabbat is understood to be a day of rest and celebration to commemorate two events: the creation of the world and our deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Those two reasons come directly from the Torah. In addition, there are two tasks associated with Shabbat: to remember and to observe. Remembering Shabbat includes honoring the two events that are given as reasons for Shabbat: the creation of the world and deliverance from slavery. One finds this remembrance in the words of the kiddush that sanctifies Shabbat. In addition, on Shabbat, remembrance also belongs to one’s state of mind and the peaceful and tranquil practice of prayer, study and eating that, during the week, may be rushed or interrupted.

Observing Shabbat is generally tied to the prohibition to abstain from various kinds of work, specifically kinds of work associated with creativity. This rest from creative pursuits allows one the opportunity to recuperate during Shabbat in a way that sustains creativity throughout the rest of the week. In orthodox circles, work is defined in 39 ways, most of which relate to the construction of the sanctuary and its ritual objects. The connection between work and the sanctuary comes from the Talmud while a number of other tasks, also consumed under the category of work, come from specific tasks mentioned in the Torah as prohibited. In modern-day life, such things as turning lights on and off, using electronic devices, cooking, driving a car, writing or even picking up a pen are considered work. That is in addition to actually attending to duties at one’s place of employment.

In many ways this has become the only acceptable understanding of being shomer Shabbos in many Jewish circles. However, Judaism has changed over time and rarely ever had only one way of doing something. There was a time when Torah was read without the help of Rashi. There was a time when women had the right to initiate divorce and receive the get as well as had to consent to divorce when initiated by her husband (see The Jewish Women’s Archive Online). There was a time when the Jews of Moravia and Italy reclassified Christians as non-idol worshipers in order to trade in and even drink stam yeinam, Christian wine (see Katz’s Tradition and Crisis, pgs. 18-22).

In other words, both customs and halakha weren’t always considered eternal. In fact, it was argued over and modified quite often in order to cope with or sometimes in order to just survive constantly changing conditions. Nonetheless, for some Jews nowadays, there is only one interpretation of Shabbat observance that is considered true to Torah and correct in the sight of the divine.

a painting of mine
a painting of mine

I want to observe Shabbat. I want a day free of work, a day to commemorate what the Holy One has done for us, a day to rest, relax and to find peace again. I often find that through cooking, painting, drawing, going on hikes in nature and watching TV. I’m so busy during the week and so exhausted by the end of each work day, that I often do not have the opportunity to partake in any of these activities. But the activities I’ve found that re-soul me are in direct contradiction to this understanding of observance.

Nonetheless, on Erev Shabbat, I light candles with my partner and we enjoy a nice Shabbat meal. We then sit down and relax by watching one of our favorite shows together (usually Modern Family). Shabbat morning, we enjoy a nice festive meal with additional treats we don’t have during the week (besides the fact that we rarely even have the opportunity to eat breakfast together during the week). Sometimes, she reads while I paint or cook or read as well. More often, we take the dog along with us on a tram or train and go see a castle or wander in nature. By the end of the day, I’m me again. I’ve lost myself in an activity I don’t have the time to do during the week. I’ve forgotten the concerns of the week and I’m enjoying the rest and relaxation of the day. I’ve spent quality time with my partner. My dog gets the exercise, fresh air and sunshine she needs and our cat gets the peace and quiet of an empty home for a few hours.

enjoying a quiet house
enjoying a quiet house

Everything is right in the world again. I’m ready to go back to work. Yes, it may not fit into what tradition has defined as the correct observance Shabbat, but, in my opinion, it fulfills the mitzvah and, even more so, the kavanah (intention) of the day. Like changes in halakha throughout the years, I consider myself shomer Shabbos. It’s just that halakha has some catching up to do.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

8 thoughts on “Shomer Shabbos: Finding Meaning in the Observance of Shabbat by Ivy Helman”

  1. What an important post! I’m not Jewish, but I have recently begun to “take Sunday off” from all my usual responsibilities and just relax, rest, and do those things that I enjoy and it has made a tremendous difference in my energy level as well as ability to keep perspective the rest of the week. I wonder if perhaps as a society we need to do the same – find ways to periodically stop and give ourselves the opportunity to just “be” and find our perspective again. I think it may help us to find our wisdom again, since I find that Sundays are the time when those little insights come creeping into my consciousness that are crowded out by everyday life the rest of the time. In my community there is a lot of talk of how Sundays are taken over by work for adults and homework and athletics for kids, but no one seems to know how to get employers and schools to take the pressure off. On a larger societal level, taking a periodic rest may be a means of promoting peace, dialogue, and understanding – I’m thinking of the Christmas Day during World War I when soldiers from both sides just put down their guns for one day and how many lives that must have saved. Not sure how to achieve this on a wider level, but your post is a wonderful way to bring the importance of taking a day as Shabbat.


    1. This post articulates many of the same issues that I, as a full time Jewish educator at a Jewish boarding school, as well as an afterschool and Sunday Hebrew school teacher and Bnai Mitzvah tutor, face weekly. My re-souling is through my art and writing–through which I sing my Shabbat prayers. Kol hakavod on a soulful essay.


  2. This particular paragraph stood out to me as important:

    “…both customs and halakha weren’t always considered eternal. In fact, it was argued over and modified quite often in order to cope with or sometimes in order to just survive constantly changing conditions. Nonetheless, for some Jews nowadays, there is only one interpretation of Shabbat observance that is considered true to Torah and correct in the sight of the divine.”

    The “way it’s always been done” can be heard in all religious communities. I don’t believe ritual comes alive and effective until it’s been integrated into one’s own experience–experience that varies from person to person and community to community.

    Thanks for posting, Ivy.


    1. That paragraph spoke to me too. My personal example is electricity, which became an issue only about 100 years ago. It is difficult for me to think of flipping a light switch as “work” in the same way as building and feeding a fire is. But even more seriously, leaving lights on offends my sense of conservation and caring for the Earth. This came clearly to my attention some years ago when we were sharing a suite with a couple we did not know at a Jewish retreat center. On Friday afternoon the light switch in the bathroom was taped in the “on” position with a note to leave it that way.


  3. I identify as Jewish Renewal. The practice of my family on Shabbat is to avoid anything we personally consider to be work. I hate making travel arrangements, so I don’t do that. My partner won’t use a computer, but for me, I keep in touch with friends electronically, so the computer is not work, it’s communication and Shabbat is when I catch up on the mail.
    A contrary example: a friend from Israel says he always hated Shabbat as a boy. His mother started preparing for it on Tuesday, shopping and cooking and cleaning, getting increasingly tense as Friday sundown approached that things would not be ready in time and ordering them around. They were heavy smokers, which was forbidden (lighting a fire), so as the evening/day wore on they became increasingly bad-tempered. The minute they saw three stars on Sat. night everyone lit up, and there was comparative peace for a few days.
    I like the idea of choosing to do something positive, rather than avoiding things. A few years ago I led a discussion on Jewish practices in the 21st century. We asked “what is one thing that you could add to your practice to make it more meaningful?” One woman said she would start taking a relaxing bath when she got home from work on Friday night. My own addition (since fallen by the wayside) was to change clothes, and dress up on Friday night for Shabbat dinner.


  4. A living tradition is one that changes to meet need and circumstance. Your practice sounds perfect!
    Happy Shabbot !


  5. I struggled with this when I was studying with Rabbi Karen as I planned to convert. How to be Jewish “enough” as a convert? How to observe Shabbat “enough” when I knew I would not follow Orthodox or even Conservative tradition? We were already lighting candles and blessing my homemade challah on Friday nights. Rabbi Karen said “start with adding something small that has meaning for you, like not turning on your computer for Shabbat.” Bingo!

    (And I love your tree painting!)


  6. Thank you! I also consider myself shomer Shabbos, and also in a way that the Orthodox would not accept. Friday evening starts for me with candle lighting and eating something special, followed by spending the evening watching favorite tv shows with my wife/partner. My observances on Saturday have changed over time but include reading things which are more spiritual, like this list or Patheos, listening to an online sermon, playing games, especially ones I don’t play during the week, watching some favorite tv shows, reading a novel, relaxing in a bath and/or having one of our nephews come over to spend the weekend with us. I recently added a commitment to myself to do some ritual in the morning, mostly consisting in Jewish Renewal style chanting. That style of chanting feeds my soul far more than traditional prayers do.

    Thank you for reminding us that there is more than one way to celebrate the Sabbath that is authentic, renewing, soul-feeding, and meaningful.


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