Jewish Time: The Shabbat
Judaism's take on spirituality and holiness is that it exists primarily in our everyday lives and actions — at home, at work, in our leisure time, and in every room of the house, from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom. Jewish mysticism teaches that God is infinite and everywhere, but that we must live in a universe in which the Divine — for reasons only God completely knows — is almost fully hidden.
The Torah has many commandments that guide and dictate two major realms of life, two relationships — that between us and God and that between us and other people. Jewish time helps to cultivate both of these relationships. In his famous book, The Shabbat, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel states that many ancient religions had concepts of sacred space, whether in a temple, the place of a particular idol, or a sacred city. But Judaism was the first to teach the centrality of sacred time.
Sometimes we see time as completely linear. It moves on into the future as one flat line with no particular texture of its own. There are only minor variations in the weather, the seasons, or the ways in which we experience time differently at different ages of our life. In contrast, Judaism views time as a kind of spiral, akin to a giant stretched-out slinky. Time, of course, does move on into the future. Our lives begin in one spot and end in another when a new generation takes over. But at the same time, Judaism believes that the many subcycles built into time are highly significant and have a reality of their own. The Jewish year has holidays that not only commemorate historic events, but that are seen as being able to tap into the very texture, feeling, and root nature of a particular time.
For instance, the Torah tells us that the holiday of Passover must be celebrated each year in the springtime; thus for Jews spring is the “season” of freedom. The Jewish mystics, however, have a slightly different understanding. Spring is not the season of freedom because the Jewish people simply happened to leave Egypt in the spring. Instead, they say the Jewish people left Egypt in the spring because that time of the calendar is conducive to understanding and experiencing freedom. Time itself has spiritual qualities, aspects, and real textures.
Cultivating holiness in our everyday lives is the mission of Jewish people. We are supposed to help reveal the hidden divine even within the very physical and sometimes seemingly mundane world of our everyday lives. Judaism teaches that the Torah, the written and oral tradition, is the handbook for this enormous undertaking.
Accordingly, time in Jewish life is both personal and universal. Each moment of cyclical time affects us as a nation, but if we can tune into the spiritual nature of time, it affects us personally in our own inner lives as well.
The Shabbat is probably the most central pillar upon which Jewish time and, consequently, Jewish homes are built. Abraham Joshua Heschel is famous for coining the adage, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat,, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.” The Shabbat comes each week on Friday night for twenty-five hours, from sundown on Friday until darkness on Saturday.
It is written in the Mishna that there are actually four New Years. One for the counting of years begins when the world was created, but the New Year from which we count months and holidays begins in the month of Nisan. That's when we left Egypt and became a people.
The Shabbat is referred to as a queen in Jewish literature and is ushered in by the lighting of two candles, typically by the woman of the house along with her children and husband. The image of the Shabbat as a queen is a telling one. It is very special, like royalty, but it is also feminine and maternal, a source of comfort and nurturing. Jewish mysticism teaches that the Shabbat brings the ultimate unity of the divine and the world. God is infinite but hidden in the universe. On Sabbath the curtain is parted and we can glimpse, even while engaging in the very physical pleasures of Shabbat, the ultimate unity of God. This is known in Jewish thought as a “taste of the world to come.”
Friday night songs and meals are an especially beautiful time for families to gather together after a busy week and interact. The Friday night meal has specific songs in Hebrew that can be found in books and on the Internet. Some songs welcome the Sabbath, and there are also tunes for the kid-dush, the prayer over wine or grape juice that welcomes and sanctifies the Shabbat and the Shabbat meal.
Following the wine, challah, special bread for the Shabbat, is eaten with some salt sprinkled upon it. The wine, bread, and salt are reminiscent of the services in the Holy Temple of old. The Jewish home now is the temple, and we have to re-create the temple in Jerusalem where God's presence rested. The table in our home is an altar, and the wine, bread, and food we eat — especially on the Sabbath — are like a holy service, reflecting the services of the pouring of wine, the baking of bread, and the offering of sacrifices in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem.
A good way to involve children in the ceremony of the Shabbat candle lighting at the onset of Shabbat each week is to have them light a candle of their own and make the blessing together with you. In addition, some children receive Shabbat treats after the lighting, ensuring that Shabbat is associated with sweetness.
A traditionally celebrated Sabbath is an amazing thing, quite unique in our society. Jews who observe the Sabbath traditionally do not use electricity, drive cars, or do business on the Sabbath. They don't go to soccer games on the Sabbath or to the mall or even answer the phone. This may sound overly restrictive, but in truth the restrictions of the Sabbath help to create its miraculous atmosphere. After a week that over time has become busier and busier, Shabbat forces us into quality time. Indeed, if they were not commanded to rest on the Sabbath, few people would.
Sex between a husband and wife is a mitzvah, but on Shabbat it is considered an especially holy mitzvah. It adds to the pleasure we are supposed to feel on Shabbat and the unity of two people mirrors the ultimate unity of God.
The Sabbath is a day of space, a day of not doing and finding within that the deeper things we overlooked all week. In traditional communities the twenty-five hours of the Sabbath are spent with community, with family, and with friends, eating meals together, talking, studying, praying, and playing games. There is no television or shopping to draw one away from the things in life that can be truly meaningful.