One of my first posts on feminismandreligion.com 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.
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.
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.