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September 5, 2016 6:37 am

Being Religious About Shabbat Means Connecting With God

avatar by Lieba Rudolph

Email a copy of "Being Religious About Shabbat Means Connecting With God" to a friend
Shabbat candles. Photo: wiki commons.

Shabbat candles. Photo: wiki commons.

Many people today sneer at keeping Shabbat. To them, Shabbat observance smacks of everything that’s wrong with religion.

As someone who started keeping the sabbath so my new Torah-observant friends would eat in my house, I was dragged into Shabbat observance kicking and screaming.

It’s not easy to amuse yourself on Shabbat, especially if you have kids around. For starters, you can’t cook, you can’t drive and you can’t use electricity. These are just a few of the forbidden acts, but they all originate with the 39 Melachos, the “creative work” the Jews did in building a portable sanctuary (“The Mishkan”) so they could worship God in the desert.

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I barely know what “winnowing” or “threshing” are. I can’t imagine being the slightest bit tempted to do these activities on Shabbat, but you’d be surprised what daily tasks derive from them. I just know that, many years ago, when I was locked out of my house one Shabbat day with all my young kids and I had to wait in the cold until an hour after sundown to open my electric garage door, I understood with new clarity why so many Jews gave up on the day of rest. Because keeping Shabbat was hard.

The lights started to go out on Shabbat observance in America when our impoverished ancestors arrived here. They needed to put food on their tables, literally, and most jobs demanded working on Saturdays. Not to mention, their whole reason for coming to America was to escape persecution for being Jewish.

I have no idea why any of this happened in the world at large. I can only tell you that, for me, trying to keep Shabbat when you have to do it all at once is one of those things that actually is as hard as it looks. That is, until you really care about every tiny detail in your relationship with God.

Until you care about every tiny detail in your relationship with God, Shabbat is just a bunch of annoying restrictions. It’s religion. And in those early years, the only thing harder was that Fridays had to be spent in the kitchen the entire day — winter, spring, summer, fall.

I thought it would stay difficult like that forever. Twenty-five hours where the main focus was to avoid doing things like accidentally leaning up against a light switch. (I remember how troubled I was when I learned that we were accountable for the sins we commit inadvertently, albeit less so. I wondered: is there limited space in heaven?)

It took years for me to learn not to think like that — after all, I grew into adulthood being sure of my existence and questioning God’s. My idea of religious Jews was that they were obsessed with these commandments in their excruciating detail in order to propitiate a God who is as scary as He is unseen. They exchanged miserable lives in this world for, they hope, a big payoff in the next one.

My new friends weren’t like that though. They loved being observant Jews. But I didn’t, especially not on Shabbat. I felt the way that Cinderella felt about midnight.

But I hung in there, all the while learning Chassidus, trying to wrap my head around ideas like, “God is the Knower, the Knowledge, the Known.” Everything. Always. And that little, tiny me can please Him endlessly just by not turning on the light on Shabbat. And by doing all those other mitzvos, too.

I just had to stop being religious in order to try to bridge the gap.

I can tell you unequivocally that now, so many years later, Shabbat actually feels different. Maybe it’s that I don’t have to entertain all those kids anymore. Maybe it’s the pleasure I have in knowing that I hung in there for Him, even though it was so hard for me.

Or maybe it’s that I appreciate that Shabbat is God’s favorite day of the week. It’s the day that’s closest to the way life will be for us in the Messianic era, when we will perceive Godliness effortlessly.

That’s why I’m trying lately to light my candles early, even before sundown. Some people say it’s a mitzvah to do this. It’s also my way of showing God that, finally, I want more Shabbat in my life, not less.

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  • Jay Lavine

    Judaism, with all its laws, is about self-control. At first, self-control feels restrictive. Over time, however, we learn that it is one key to happiness. As Virginia Woolf once stated, “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” We can make an analogy with children. Those who are brought up without discipline may be very unhappy, both as children and as adults. With self-discipline and self-control, the temptation to do forbidden things goes away and we feel contentment in our chosen path.

    Shabbat, our most important holiday, is a central part of being Jewish. Those who are not Orthodox should not be dissuaded but should be encouraged to observe Shabbat in their own way. For example, they may not be disposed to observe the prohibition on use of electricity. Even so, they are most definitely not secular, and whatever form their observance takes is laudatory.

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