I am who I am thanks to Shabbat. Due to this biblically mandated institution, I have peace of mind, a flourishing community, a great relationship with my family, and a career where I traverse the country singing its praises. All this benefit for just taking a day off! The Torah emphasizes Shabbat more than any other ritual because it provides the most profound physical, financial, and emotional evidence that one is serious about a relationship with G-d. I discovered prioritizing Shabbat is the benchmark, the golden ticket, the minimum deposit required to open a high-yield spiritual bank account. In my new neighborhood, Shabbat was joyous, intellectually invigorating, and united all age groups.
I was advised early on not to tell anyone when I became Shomer Shabbat (fully Sabbath observant) until I was all the way there. Otherwise, I might get caught weaseling out of a family function I didn’t want to attend based on the platitude of my newfound religiosity, but then making an exception to see a favorite rock band. It took me a few years after I began learning about the intricacies of Shabbat to actually take it on 100%. I’m glad I did the baby step routine; it made every hour added to the sacred day a personal triumph.
Every week, our home is whitewashed: sheets changed, floors scrubbed, and counters cleared. Even the bathrooms feature fresh flowers. We wear our best clothes, enjoy a multicourse feast in the dining room with fine china and polished silver, sing songs both sacred and secular, and offer words of Torah. We also laugh together, play board games, card games, and tell stories. Of course, when we have guests, we take the meal up a notch, drink l’chaims, and go around the table so guests can introduce themselves and mention something special from the past week for which they are grateful. I offer a d’var Torah (a Torah thought), usually explaining nuances in the weekly portion and how they might be relevant in our lives. I’m told obtaining an invite to our Shabbas table is considered an “E-Ticket” opportunity.
We are members of several synagogues in our unusual neighborhood and I do my best to “shul-hop” based on my mood, a sudden intuition, or whichever among the fifty within walking distance has a special speaker or simchah. Wherever I show up, I am often coaxed into leading the davening. I generally say yes regardless of my level of exhaustion and rarely regret the decision. I feel that my singing ability and spirit is a gift I can give to my community, and the sound of the congregation joining me in song is all the compensation I need. While there are a lot of things one can’t do on Shabbat, we are fully occupied doing what’s permitted: eating, drinking, praying, schmoozing, spending time with family, and maybe even taking a luxurious nap on Saturday afternoon.
Thanks to the extensive preparation required, Shabbat is something we celebrate all week. My wife Shira saves her best recipes for the festive meals and spends days planning the guest list and visiting various markets for ingredients. I read the weekly Torah portion with a plethora of commentaries to remain in sync with the entire Jewish world and garnish something novel to share at my Shabbat meals. I make sure the dry cleaning is picked up by Friday so that we have our Shabbat clothes pressed and ready. When our kids were in elementary school, they were primed with excitement to share new insights at the table. Now they just look at me funny when I request a d’var Torah. As we prepare, we remember these weekday activities are done l’chvod Shabbos (to honor Shabbat). I must admit I binge on my work on Wednesday and Thursday nights knowing I have Shabbat coming to catch up on sleep. Before leaving for the synagogue Erev Shabbat, there’s a custom to check one’s pockets to ensure they are empty. I do this both physically and spiritually, consciously emptying worries from my cranial hard drive.
Becoming shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) requires a temporal shift in the perspective of one’s week. This is hinted at in the laws regarding Havdalah, the ceremony with which we commemorate the Sabbath’s departure on Saturday night. One can say Havdalah until sunset on Tuesday. That’s because Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday are considered to be in the “shadow” of the previous Shabbat. From Tuesday night and on, we are in the zone of the upcoming Shabbat. The day of rest is not the “end” of the week, like a finish line where we break the tape and then collapse. Instead, it is the centerpiece, the pinnacle, the raison d’être. The Havdalah Kiddush doesn’t just separate the sacred from the secular…it injects the secular with the sacred. Perhaps the best symbol of this concept is the golden menorah in the Temple, with its primary central branch and the three on either side angling toward it. When Shabbat and a G-d-focused life is the center of our week, we float on an exalted raft of blessing upon the raging river of life. We recognize that the energy of the previous Shabbat is only three days behind us and another nurturing, faith-building day is imminent.
The prayers on Shabbat are longer and hopefully more musical than their weekday counterpart. Shabbat is the time when a mourner’s chiyuv (halachic priority) to lead the service is superseded by the importance of having a trained chazan with natural musical leadership ability. The celebration starts with a final weekday Mincha (afternoon) service and segues into the special Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony to welcome the Sabbath bride. Then Ma’ariv (evening prayers) are followed by a festive meal. On Saturday morning, we have extra prayers in both the P’sukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and Sh’ma sections of Shacharit. Following the Shabbat Amidah, we hear the full-length Torah reading and Haftorah (passages from Prophets). Then we add the Musaf (additional) service to commemorate the special sacrifice offered on Shabbat in Temple times. Tack on the concluding prayers and multiple repetitions of Kaddish and the service can last three hours.
I recommend newcomers take their time endeavoring this acquired taste. In other words, optimally we should be in the synagogue for all the prayers, but not if it makes us miserable. A good indication of our frustration level is when we start counting how many pages are left in the siddur. By coming a bit later to services, we can incorporate our public prayer quotient in measured doses and then shmooze at the kiddush. One caveat: Each section of the service unlocks the gate to the following one. Our formal prayers are like a video game in which each level must be passed to access the next. The siddur, like the Passover Seder, has order as its root. When arriving late, we start with the parts we missed before joining the group prayer. For example, one can do morning blessings at home and then squeeze in the highlights of P’sukei D’zimra and Sh’ma in between aliyot of the Torah reading, then say the personal Amidah during the Haftorah. That way, by Mussaf, one has fully caught up with the congregation. If this sounds too confusing, just get there on time! It’s a big mitzvah to be among the first ten assembled, thereby “making the minyan.”
Sometimes I wonder where I get the discipline to be so machmir (strict) with my Sabbath and holiday observance. I certainly didn’t start out life this way, and I realize that for many, taking on such a seemingly inconvenient commitment seems out of reach. These days, most can’t fathom even an hour without checking their cell phone. I’m aided by a welcoming community dedicated to celebrating these holy days according to the letter of the law. It’s helpful that my extended family unites to share the adventure. Perhaps there is a mystical force operating behind the scenes.
Most American Jews have great-great-grandparents who were deeply connected to Shabbat and are pulling strings for us upstairs. Just imagine: Since the time of Moses, the freight train of Jewish history has been thundering along the tracks, powered by the eternal combustion of Mount Sinai, sustained by the mitzvot we observe. Tragically, in our days, we see many of the cars have derailed. There’s a supernatural reason our souls feel good when we affiliate, when we do a mitzvah, when we attend a Shabbas meal. Perhaps it’s assuaging our Jewish guilt or a subliminal attraction to members of the tribe. Or maybe it’s all those ancestors rallying for us behind the scenes shouting, “Go, go, go…just do it!”
Let’s get this train back on track.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer, and author in Los Angeles. His book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.