Photo courtesy of Micaela Ezra
Possibly one of the coolest things about Judaism is the fact that we have holidays not just a handful of times a year, but every single week. Shabbat, a 25-hour period lasting from sundown each Friday through nightfall on Saturday, is Judaism’s day of rest – and given the, er, state of unrest in the world right now with the pandemic and all, isn’t that something we could all use?
Shabbat is a weekly commemoration of the seventh day of creation, when, after creating the world in the first six days, God rested – as well as a weekly celebration of the freedom God granted the Israelites from Egypt. As such, one of the hallmarks of the day, traditionally, is refraining from work – which is defined by Jewish law in ways that might not always square with our 21st-century interpretations (more about this below).
Whether you choose to follow all the traditional rules of Shabbat or to pick just one or two observances to bring to the day, celebrating Shabbat each week is one of the most beautiful and meaningful ways to bring spirituality in your life – and the fact that Shabbat comes around each and every week means you’ve got plenty of opportunities to try different things out and see what works for you. This week, we’re sharing five ideas to light up your Shabbat – and next week we’ll be back with five more.
One of the best-known – and most beautiful – Shabbat traditions is lighting candles on Friday night. Just before Shabbat begins, it’s customary to light at least two candles (in honor of the two Torah passages commanding Jews to observe Shabbat: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” and “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy”), cover your eyes, and recite a blessing.
The candles are to be left to burn down – depending on what kind you go for, they should last at least a few hours – and watching the lights flicker as you sit down to your Shabbat dinner (or however else you choose to spend the evening) adds a really special touch to your home’s atmosphere. And especially as we get into the darker, colder winter nights, there’s just something undeniably cozy about candlelight.
It’s customary to give tzedakah (often translated as “charity,” this Hebrew word actually means something closer to “justice” or “righteousness” – which is a nice insight into the way Jewish tradition looks at giving back) each week prior to lighting the Shabbat candles. The traditional way to do this is to drop some cash or coins into a tzedakah box – and these days, you can purchase beautiful designs to suit any style, or if you’re crafty you could decorate your own – but you could also set up a recurring electronic donation to a cause that’s meaningful to you.
Turn Your Tech Off
For those who observe Shabbat traditionally, there’s a long list of activities (39, to be precise) that are prohibited – these are drawn from the tasks that were involved in constructing the Tabernacle in which the Israelites carried the Ten Commandments during their desert sojourn during the Exodus, and include everything from writing to kindling a flame (which, these days, includes actions like turning a light switch or TV on) to carrying outside of one’s private domain.
Computers, phones, and other tech gadgets are out due to the prohibitions on both kindling a flame and writing (yep, letters on a screen count) – but even if you don’t abide by the traditional laws of Shabbat, as our lives get more and more tech-based, lots of people are finding a benefit to taking a “technology Shabbat” (yes, that’s really a thing). There’s something really freeing and calming about saying no to email and texts, social media and news, and committing to being present. You can do it for the whole 25 hours, or pick a smaller interval at some point during Shabbat in which you’ll power down and check out.
If the idea of a technology Shabbat doesn’t speak to you – or if you’ve already made it a practice and are looking to do more – you can always choose another activity to cut out for some or all of the holiday, whether it’s one traditionally prohibited on Shabbat or just something you’d like to work on personally.
Prepare a Festive Meal
As with most Jewish holidays, food is a big part of Shabbat – it’s actually customary to serve your finest food of the week on this day. There are all kinds of traditional Shabbat foods, from Jewish cultures all around the world, and it can be a lot of fun to explore these – but go with whatever kind of menu speaks to you!
Baking challah is one way a lot of Smashing Life members have been connecting with Shabbat, especially since the start of the pandemic, and it’s a beautiful, calming, and meditative practice that can be incredibly meaningful.
But if cooking’s not your thing, take-out’s great too! The important part is that your menu features foods you enjoy.
In ordinary times, we’d suggest you scope out some local congregations in person to find Shabbat services that speak to you – getting familiar with the traditional liturgy and music of Shabbat can add a beautiful additional layer of spirituality to the day. But right now, that’s not really on the table in many parts of the world.
You can certainly incorporate prayer into your Shabbat on your own, but if you’re seeking more of a communal experience and are okay with going online, lots of synagogues are streaming their Friday night and Saturday morning services these days – and one benefit is that you can check out congregations all over the world, not just in your own town. There are so many options out there, but for starters, check out NYC’s B’nai Jeshurun and London’s Alyth.
If you’re new to Shabbat services, you might want to start with Friday night, since it tends to be quicker, more musical, and generally more accessible than Saturday morning. Saturday morning services include the reading of the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, which is cool to experience but, let’s be honest, can be a lot to sit through.
How do you observe Shabbat? Let us know in the comments – or come chat with us on Instagram at @yourjewishlife!