For some of us, there is an antidote to this calendrical monotony: Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. And it has received an endorsement from a most unlikely source, Pope Francis. During a 2018 documentary interview that has been revived and widely circulated during the coronavirus-caused shutdown, the pope declared, “What the Jews followed, and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy. On Saturday you rest. One day of the week. That’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all of these things. We are not machines.”
I thought of the pope’s message on a recent Friday night as my wife lit the candles to welcome the Shabbat into our home, and as I began our family dinner with the ritual blessing over the wine. Although I am not a devout person, and am ambivalent theologically, celebrating and observing the Sabbath has been an integral part of my life. For 25 hours each week, from shortly before sunset on Friday until the stars come out on Saturday night, I press the pause button. I don’t travel. I don’t transact business. And as Pope Francis said, it’s a day to spend lots of time with the family. Trying to juggle work and family on weekdays while self-quarantining doesn’t count.
On the surface, Shabbat is a weekly holiday of renewal, during which Jews celebrate the miracle of creation and try to follow God’s example of resting following a week of labor. But Shabbat is about much more than taking a welcome rest. Its deeper meaning can be seen in the root of the word that is the focus of both the blessing over the candles and the blessing over the wine: the Hebrew word “kadosh,” which means both to sanctify and to separate. This same word is also translated as “holy” in the biblical Fourth Commandment, as in “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” In other words, when Jews sanctify the Sabbath and keep it holy, they are making a conscious act of separation.
At its most elementary, Shabbat is about separating the profane from the sacred; the workweek from the Sabbath. But Shabbat is also a reminder of other forms of separation that add meaning to our lives — between hard work and play, and between pursuing our own dreams and caring for others. Shabbat is about balance or, to use a modern word, mindfulness. And as the pope understands, people of all faiths need the equivalent of a Shabbat experience precisely because we are not machines. We can’t recharge ourselves via a USB port.
Shabbat doesn’t have to be limited to observant Jews who adhere to all of its rituals and restrictions. There are many ways to celebrate Shabbat. On college campuses, many young Jews and even non-Jews attend organized Friday night dinners to celebrate and demarcate the end of the school week and the beginning of the weekend. Many young Jewish professionals gather on Friday nights for dinner and fellowship after an arduous workweek.
What makes these gatherings different from the typical Friday night party scene is that they are constructed around the themes of Shabbat — candles to remind us of the elementary act of creation, separating light from darkness, and wine to remind us of the importance of taking stock each week of what we have accomplished. And in trying to emulate the Creator, whoever or whatever it might be, it’s a small weekly reminder that each of us has the power to shape in some way the world in which we want to live.
In the pre-pandemic world, I looked forward to Shabbat because it meant great homemade challah, chicken soup and other culinary treats. I was also usually surrounded by my children and often a large group of friends and extended family. Now, my Shabbat dinners are limited to those with whom I am sheltering. Yet the Shabbat’s meaning may be more powerful now than in normal times. Despite the loneliness and isolation and fear of the unknown, each week, Shabbat roots me in my traditions and reminds me of my humanity. And, no small thing, it keeps my calendar in order.