Friday, June 13, 2014

Why I don't fudge the Jewish Sabbath

It's Friday, almost 5 pm and I've got to start cooking. I mean preparing two elaborate Sabbath meals for tablesful of guests.

And I've got to get all the cooking done before a prescribed time, a prescribed hour and minute, after which the Sabbath comes in, and many normal activities suddenly become forbidden.

On Shabbat, the Hebrew word for the Jewish Sabbath, we don't cook, ride in cars, turn on lights, write, use anything electric or electronic, take photos, and a raft of other actions that most folks don't think about doing.

The rationale is foremost that God told us to do this (remember the 10 Commandments?); to stop creating in any form just as He stopped creating for a special day that was set aside to note the contrast between our own God-like power of creation and the impact of the world on us.

I've got relatively little time now to make two soups, two entrees, several vegetables, two desserts and bake the challah bread I mixed from scratch and awaits me in braids rising in the warm kitchen. I've got to set the table with our nicest accoutrements, plates and arrangements that I devise specially and uniquely for each Shabbat meal. I've got to clean myself up, brushing away the flour, changing into nicer clothes, and I've got to prepare our guestroom for a visitor who, like us, sets aside this time in observance of this most important holiday in the Jewish calendar (despite its weekly recurrence).

Then, of course, I get a phone call. Someone important to me; someone I have to engage and satisfy. Then someone rings the doorbell, bringing a bottle of wine, thanking me for inviting him for a meal. Unanticipated interruptions in a schedule with little time to spare.

People unfamiliar with the Jewish Sabbath hear about this weekly drill and, thinking they're being helpful suggest, "Can't you get some kind of dispensation so you can finish cooking after the start-time?" As if the Sabbath is something some rabbi made up, and therefore can fudge when need arises.

Nobody asks for a dispensation for gravity. Maybe the guy who fell off the roof can get a little note so he won't go splat on the driveway?

That's kind of the way observant Jews see Shabbat. It happens, and it has parameters.  You can violate those parameters, and you won't go splat on the sidewalk, but spiritually you feel like you slipped and fell. These rules define the day, and if you stretch them, you know it's a fail.

And now Shabbat is closing in and I better go make the soup. After 30 years of record speed creating Shabbat by deadlines, I've gotten pretty good at it. I usually work down to the wire, whether the set hour to light Shabbat candles is a winter-time 4 pm or a summer solstice 9 pm.  There's something exhilarating about the pressure, because the contrast when Shabbat enters and the race is over becomes triumphant.

Shabbat Shalom! Now I've got to run.


  1. totally appreciate this post, and very much respect the tradition. as an evangelical christian, I'm very frustrated when I miss my sunday morning services. it's not as dogmatic in our faith tradition, but it's something my sons (two teenagers) have done since they were born. routinely we wind our way through malibu canyon and go to church in a area 45 mins north of los angeles, where i see so many jewish brothers on friday night walking their to services of their own in. this very day (today -- is that a tautology?), as a jewish father and son were walking past me at the gas station, i wished them both "shabbat shalom" and the son kept singing (reciting?) and the father exuberantly wished me the same back. our faith traditions are so very different, but they are so very much the same.


    1. Makes it worthwhile--to see the unintended impact of our observance on people like you and others around us. You've reminded me that Shabbat isn't just beneficial to those of us observing it. Thank you.

  2. Love this! Why IS it that even as the clock terrifyingly advances and the meal isn't any closer to done (ha, or even started), there's an overwhelming urge to suddenly do something that isn't even part of the solution--in my case, it probably isn't to write a philosophical blog post, but I can still relate. Though it does defy all logic the way you make it *look* like you'd cooked all day! Are you sure you don't have special time-bending powers? Maybe this blog post is just a decoy... :)

    1. You're right; I procrastinate by writing. Discovered. What is it about stress and pressure that's so compelling???