Shabbat - A Reconstructionist Approach

Dear readers,

I wrote this essay three and a half years ago as part of a contribution I was asked to make to a 'how to be a Jew' type of book. My chapter did not jive with the style of the other pieces - or so they said - so I am attempting to rescue it from the ashbin of history by posting it here. Perhaps it will find it's long awaited for audience.


Reconstructing Shabbat: A Memoir

Over a hundred years ago the spiritual leader of Ger, Poland taught that:

“The sabbath completes each thing; it is the fulfillment of all, for it is the root of all life…that is why sabbath is called “rest,” because it returns each thing to its root…All week long we should look forward to this returning to our root and the place of our rest for this is where we truly live.”

I was lucky to have something to base my “making shabbes” on. Growing up in a fairly traditional Jewish home in Charlotte, North Carolina my mom made the best chicken soup south of the Mason-Dixon line, (and still does) served it on china in the dining room, and joined in when dad sang the kiddush over a silver goblet of Manishevitz. My brother, my parents and I spent Friday night in the living room, talking politics or playing chess, and we went to a Conservative synagogue Saturday morning. We’d come home, have a lunch of cold but tasty leftovers, and all walk upstairs to crash in our respective beds for a shnooze. In the summer, when I’d go off to a Jewish camp, I’d do a traditional --no electricity, no writing, no work –Shabbes in the woods. In short, I’ve been blessed with many shabbes experiences in which the day was deeply restful, detached from the stress of the week, and spiritually charged.

But that is not the whole story. Take for example, the time my father and I went on a Friday night to our neighbor’s house to watch the Muhammed Ali – Trevor Burbik fight. Our neighbor’s place stunk of cigars, and we certainly would have preferred to watch at home. But one of my father’s restrictions -- not to turn on the TV in our house on shabbes – could not be violated. Apparently our television set was very religious.

I joke, but the idea that objects themselves need a shabbat is profound. I remember once receiving a button from one of my Orthodox relatives which stressed the message that one should not drive on shabbat. The button had a cartoon of a Herbie-like car lying upside down in a bed, saying “Thank God it’s Shabbos”. Not driving, not turning on or off any electricity, not ripping, or cutting, or writing, or cooking -- these practices are all ones which I have embraced at certain times in my life because they allowed me to simply live in the world without trying to change it. The traditional shabbat, which is guided by a list of thirty-nine prohibited forms of work laid out in the fifth century, has many do’s and don’ts that exist to create boundaries which both block us from “mastering” the world’s objects and from experiencing the minor crises of the weekday.

Take something as simple as going to the playground with your kids. On shabbat those on the traditional side of my extended family will tell their children to go on the jungle gym, but not into the sandbox. Why? The sandbox will encourage building castles, or writing in the sand, both of which should be refrained from. There is another reason one might ask them to avoid the sandbox-- I know from supervising my own children that sandcastles generally result in Dresden like acts of destruction by siblings. Another example is a practice that I find amusing, ripping toilet paper, which is prohibited. Traditional shabbes observers will pre-rip paper and leave it on top of the toilet. How many squares should one rip? These become serious questions.

A traditional shabbat requires intense preparation of not only toilet paper, but of the entire house. The lightbulb in the frig is unscrewed, and all other lights are set in their positions. Food is prepared, water poured into an urn for tea and instant coffee. Crock-pots are filled with soups and stews. One enters a traditionally observed shabbat knowing that all needs are taken care of, all things are in order, and the house can truly be a place of peace. What may sound obsessive actually becomes liberating. Shabbat, observed traditionally, is like walking aboard a cruise ship knowing that all your expenses have been paid.

But here lies the tension in my story– what happens when the restrictions restrict you from something which may indeed be the very thing that gives you rest, completes you, and returns you to your root. That, I imagine, was what boxing was that night for my dad. And that is what gardening, listening to and playing music, watching a movie, cooking a favorite dish, painting, and calling friends on the phone are to me. Not doing these things on shabbat seems like a great loss.

But then I think of the great liberation that shabbat holds when I do withdraw from these things, all of which depend on me changing the world somehow by using technology, electricity or other tools. Times when I just am, and appreciate the world without trying to change it are rare. So why do I need any type of activity when I have a day to simply be with my family and to talk, eat or take a long walk? Or to be alone on that walk, or in a place of worship, reflecting on my relationship to the mundane and Divine.

Resolving these tensions in my life hasn’t been easy.

Take my high school prom night, for example, which fell on Shabbat. I wasn’t going to miss my prom. I had saved money, tediously filing papers at an accountant’s office, to rent a tux. But I also wasn’t going to miss shabbat dinner with my family. It was, for the most part, the only time my family sat down together, and there I was, getting ready to head off for college, knowing that soon regular Friday night dinner with my family would only be a memory. So there I sat, with my red-headed Methodist southern belle girlfriend, decked out in tux and gowns, eating chicken soup with my family, and then an hour later dancing to “Rock Lobster.” I had a great time, but later my girlfriend told me just how weird it was. She could see that I was caught between two worlds.

My care-free attitude about going out on Friday night continued through college. I’d go to Hillel for dinner and then spend the rest of the night shooting pool. Once when I was home during Spring Break, after eating shabbat dinner with my parents, I had gone out to the Double Door Inn, a local blues and rockabilly joint with some friends. We were all a little rowdy, and I ended up on-stage with the band, shaking my hips with one of the back-up singers. During the band’s break, she approached me at the bar and struck up a conversation. Somehow we started talking about religion, and after I told her that I was Jewish, she asked me bluntly (in a deep southern accent) “So what are you doing going out when it is your sabbath?” I was sort of tongue-tied. She told me that if I didn’t think that people should work on the sabbath then I shouldn’t go out and give money to bartenders and others. I tried to rationalize that since I do not live in a Jewish country, such a practice would do very little, but she had me in a corner. How could I go out when a direct result was that others had to work?

These tensions were partially resolved after college when I was studying in Jerusalem. Friday night I’d go to an orthodox shul, often eat Friday night dinner at the home of one of my orthodox teachers, and then return home. Saturday morning I’d go to Gan Sacher, a city park, to play soccer with hundreds of secular Israelis. While the two groups saw one another as perched on opposing ends of a spectrum, I found myself living happily between them. And since everyone had the day off of work, I felt that I was finally at peace with the world. There I was, living in a place where violence is a daily occurrence, feeling a sense of peace. But as a student and an American I could be blissfully idealistic. I did not have to take sides in the secular-religious battle, nor face the constant questioning that non-orthodox rabbis living in Israel must face.

After I got married, and my wife and I moved to Manhattan, our shabbat practice became more traditional. We went to synagogue, refrained from television, radio, using money, answering the phone – the usual stuff. Then after our twins were born we had the one shabbat of my life that I’ll never forget.

It happened during the first month of my twin boys lives. They had come two months early, and were spending their first four weeks of life hooked up to tubes and monitors in tiny incubators. Each day my wife and I shuttled back and forth from work and from our apartment to the hospital. Either way was a fifty-block trek. Lisa wanted to give them breast milk, and I spent a lot of time late at night on the subway delivering the milk in an insulated bag. I contemplated purchasing a traditional white milkman outfit. The first shabbat that came, I wasn’t sure what to do. By that time, we had decided that we were not using money on shabbat, or taking the subway. Friday evening we brought food to the hospital, blessed our children and took a very long walk home. Saturday morning, though, I had a dilemma. My wife was exhausted, but wanted to make sure that the boys got fresh milk. The walk would be over an hour, and the milk would certainly spoil. So instead of taking a cab or the subway, I rode my bicycle, through Central Park, delivering milk to my children.

Now that we have moved to the suburbs, shabbat has become complicated once again. New Jersey will do this to you. And although each week I know that I want to be taken through ritual and sweet noodle kugel to the messianic time that is now, shabbat ain’t easy.

Part of the problem is apparent in the very meaning of the Shabbat. Shabbat literally means “to stop”, yet from one of its first descriptions in the Torah it is spoken of as a day when we are instructed to “shabbat v’yinafash” -- “stop and re-soul”. But how does one “re-soul”?

When I think of “re-souling” I think of the poet-mystics of Sefat in the 16th century who imagined that re-souling in a meditative spiritual practice of coupling with the radiant Divine bride. Those ancient mountain men saw in shabbat a soft, sensual, erotic encounter that completed them. Reading their poems, I must admit that I am drawn to their fantasy -- one in which Shabbat is the romance that sustains life’s commitments.

But mystical romantic fantasies don’t always come to life in suburban New Jersey: The real question is -- How do I do shabbat here? How traditional will I be? How do I structure such a day of rest, and do it each week?

To start off there has to be a structure of do’s and don’ts. And I begin with the questions that set boundaries: Do I have the right balance of solitude, family time, and community interaction on shabbat? Am I disengaged with the things that stress me out? Am I bored and restless? Engaged with Torah learning? Do I feel closer to the Creator? Does attempting a stress-free day actually induce stress?

Before I dwell on myself though, let me say that the shabbat is not about me and my spiritual enlightenment. I am no cowboy or Wu Don warrior seeking shabbat on a lone hilltop. I go into shabbes-time knowing that I am part of a marriage, a family, a community – I am linked to others who are also engaged with shabbat. And for that reason, the choices I make have an impact beyond myself.

But I must begin with the personal, and the weekly struggle to detangle from the reality of my old house that needs repairs, my student loan debts which hound me, my exhaustion, and the endless list of work and family responsibilities that plague me. To enter shabbes is to play a game in which I say: “I now pretend that these are taken care of. ”

And here is how I play:

On my way home from work on Friday afternoon I try to buy flowers for my wife. I also might pick up a few loaves of challah from the organic bakery. Either way, when I come home I am in a different frame of mind than on Thursday.

The first thing I do after I’ve seen my wife and kids is to hide the one object that runs my week- my wallet. I stick it in a drawer, with keys and coins that I’ve fished from coat pockets.

This hiding of the wallet is one of the key themes of my sabbath—to remove myself from the world of commerce. I do this because during the week I am obsessed with it. I love advertising, and am one of those people who watches the Super Bowl for both the football and for the commercials. I am also someone who is jealous of those who have more wealth than I do, and is constantly hatching ways to get rich with one business scheme or another. The reality is that I live in a nation driven to madness by the corporate gurus who vie for control of personal mind-space with an endless barrage of “You'll be happy if you buy me!” (My apologies to all such gurus.) As much as I have come to understand that money is a necessary thing and capable of doing great good, I still think that the object itself is sort of dirty, and I am happy to remove my wallet from view.

So I make a swift retreat from the commercial world on shabbat. There is a great story from Cairo about a local Jewish prostitute who wants to donate a Torah Cover to the synagogue with her name on it, as was the custom of other members. One of the leaders of the community objects, noting that when the ark is opened, she will get free advertising. She is compelled to give it anonymously. The story articulates a deep truth – shabbat as a commercial free zone.

A very important question: What do I wear on shabbat? There was a time when most Jews owned only two sets of clothing -- one for the week and one for shabbat. (When my dad was telling a story about living on a kibbutz in 1950 he once recalled peeling off his jeans and putting on his shabbes pants as a religious act.) On Shabbat I prefer a white button down shirt, and if I’m home I like to wear sandals. If I have time, I follow the ancient tradition of bathing (mikveh) before shabbat. And sometimes, in the summer, I actually jump into the ocean before shabbat, which is truly the best way to go.

Then I’ve got to get my kids ready, (twin eight-year-old boys and a five-year-old daughter) who thank God, behave just as recklessly as children are meant to. But if, as usual, my beloved partner Lisa has begun the cooking by the time I’m home from work, then there is an actual shot that my Friday afternoon will be spent vacuuming and the house will be “presentable” to any guests. It is a mad dash of preparations and somehow we get the kids downstairs with clean faces.

Friday night meals in my home are held in the dining room. (Only time we use the place. Most expensive square feet in the house.) And once we’ve got the kiddush cup out, opened the wine, placed the challah under the cover, the salt nearby, and put out the dishes, we begin.

With the family standing behind her, and the youngest in my arms, my wife Lisa lights the candles, ushering in the shabbat. This moment, when my wife stands before the shabbes candles, is “heavy shtetl”. Strong, independent, pious women before her light the way. And she, from a long chain of women who prayed for the welfare of their families and communities in the moments before they uttered the blessing, channels it all.

When the lights are lit, we sing the classic shabbat hymn “Shalom Aleicem” and this generally leads to an improvised circle dance with the kids. We go around the table in a modified hora.

Next we bless the kids with the traditional blessings. For my two boys: May you be like Ephraim and Menashe, May God bless you, watch over you, shine upon you, and give you peace. And for my daughter “May you be like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, May God bless you…” As I bless I place my hands on their heads and then give them a kiss.

Although I am a big fan of the poem Aishet Chayil- Woman of Valor, which in a pre-feminist mode recalls the women of the world who sustain life through a tireless devotion to home chores and small business, I generally just walk over and give my wife a kiss. Then I do the traditional blessing over the wine, the kiddush, which I’ve been doing since I was about six years old. We pass the glass around the table and everyone takes a sip.

Next comes washing the hands, with the kvark, the two handled pitcher we spill out three times over each hand, and saying the blessing. Then my boys uncover the challah, bless it, rip it, dip it in salt, and pass it around.

What follows is a nice meal. No frozen burritos or macaroni and cheese. But salad, served on nice dishes. And this is generally followed by a vegetable, a grain, and a chicken. After we have some pareve fudge cookies, we sing a blessing after the meal and do a partial clean up.

So far you might be reading this and thinking – “this guy is having the most normal, typical shabbat on the planet. That family is so traditional that they might as well be living in 19th century Minsk!”

But once the dishes are in the sink, and the kids are in bed, the tension in my shabbes returns.

There is a principle in halacha (the Jewish legal process) that when you are in an emergency situation and you have to do something on shabbes that is prohibited that you do it differently. For example, if you have to make a phone call, you use your pinky finger. So I wonder: How do you watch a movie on Shabbat?

I should note that I don’t always watch a movie on shabbat. There is a traditional practice of shabbat romance that my wife and I have on occasion observed with religious fervor. But sometimes we just want to watch a movie. So how do we do this and still maintain a sense of the sanctity of shabbat?

First off, you have got to get the movie before shabbat. Nothing could ruin a shabbat quicker than going into a video store and facing the possibilities.

What kind of movie is also important. I generally go by director to determine if a movie is “shabbesdik”. Zucker and Farlley brothers no, Coen brothers yes. Kirusawa yes, Woo, no. Early Waters no, late Waters yes. Allen yes. Speilberg? E.T. is a good shabbes movie Saving Private Ryan, a no-no. Schindler’s List? God forbid. All Hitchcock films, even though they involve murder, can be watched on shabbes. No movie with Mel Gibson should be watched on shabbes (or anytime for that matter – except Mad Max). Here is my point --There needs to be a new volume of Talmud written to cover the details of watching movies on shabbes. And there may be variances in practice. Perhaps only Jews in Philadelphia should be permitted to watch Rocky on shabbes.

When you watch a movie, you must fast-forward the previews, especially the adverts for the soundtrack, which I personally find to violate some fundamental principle of artistic integrity. You must also take great care not to watch any actual TV programming which may bombard you with an advert or tragic evening news.

Reb Zalman Schacter Shalomi, a great teacher that I have been fortunate to learn from, once told me a story of the first time he listened to a record on Shabbes. I can’t remember what it was—I think Bach -- but I remember him speaking of how he played it. He set the record on before shabbes, listened to it for the first half hour of shabbes and then he left the record player on, allowing the needle to hit the big grooves in the middle of the disc all shabbes long.

If I could pre-program the VCR and TV in such a way, I think I would do it. But I never know when I’ll be sitting down and I don’t want to structure my day around anything time-bound.

If we have friends over for dinner, then afterwards I love to sit in the living room and listen to some shabbesdik albums. These include works from the Jazz greats like Davis and Coltrane, or spiritually inclined musicians like Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. The ultimate shabbes song is Coltrane’s “Naima” on Giant Steps or Bill Lee’s marvelous title track to “Mo’Better Blues.” My Beastie Boys albums, as brilliant and funny as they are, cannot be played on shabbes.

Saturday morning, we wake up a little later than usual, eat a breakfast of leftover challah, and get ready to go to synagogue. Since I am not a full-time synagogue rabbi (I go to Princeton every other week) I have the luxury of being a regular Jew on Saturday morning. We bought our home conscious that walking to shul was a priority, and we have a lovely one block walk to the local Reconstructionst synagogue.

Like most young families, we spend most of our time at shul roaming along the halls talking to other parents about parent things. We also take our kids to a “tot shabbat” service which is sort of a Raffi concert marinated in chicken soup. Then my wife and I take turns slinking into the main sanctuary, capturing a moment of study or song. We stay until the bagel lunch begins and are often the last folks to leave.

We then walk home and engage in the most vital part of shabbat – the nap.

The nap is followed by a walk into town in which we admire the displays in the little shops but do not enter them. Or we’ll go to the playground and run around, spend time in a neighbor’s backyard or stroll in the community garden. On spring and summer days this time may be spent tending our own backyard garden.

For someone like myself, who has grown up with a traditional understanding of shabbat, this is a great irony. Of the thirty-nine categories of prohibitions, the very first one prohibits planting. So I violate this precept, with full knowledge that the shabbat violator is liable for stoning with the very rocks I am tossing to the side of the garden to plant strawberries.

To be honest, every time I go back to the garden and work on some project or other, I feel guilty. Shabbat, for the last three thousand years, has been about letting the land rest while we rested. As I uproot and pick I always feel the irony of my actions.

But I understand my behavior to be reflective of a powerful technological age in which the work in this world has been turned upside down in the same way that the agricultural revolution supplanted hunter- gatherers. So what once was our work, intensive agriculture, described as man’s curse as he was thrown from Eden, ‘by the sweat of you brow…’ is now a great joy. (Women, I sense, got the worse of the curses with the labor pain). Tilling the soil, digging in the dirt and growing things in my backyard now epitomizes shabbat. This is such a form of rest, a removal from the world of work, a return to the root, quite literally that I must say “Is this not shabbes, to have my hands covered in mud as I plant tomatoes?”

I understand that for some people, gardening, or its indoor counterparts of cooking and baking are indeed serious activities that involve commercial consumption, articulate planning, and even professional consultation. If you fall into that category, then such activities are not shabbesdik.

But for the amateur, of which I am one, an afternoon of gardening, as my kids run around in the backyard, or help out, is a fine way to spend those hours before sunset.

Shabbes then ends with a light meal –shaleshudes—at home or as part of a chavurah of ten other families in our town who like us, wonder what movies to watch on shabbes. We eat, and then when there three stars in the sky we make havdallah, and sing goodbye to shabbes together.

I’ve always loved havdallah – turning off the lights, lighting a funky candle, smelling spices, drinking wine to keep shabbat going inside your soul – most often I end the day rested, refreshed, re-souled, and returned to my root.

At the core of my shabbes observance is a deeper shabbes. One in which I really do drift through the world, resting, enjoying, reading, refraining from electricity and activity, simply singing praises, meditating and walking slowly. But as a family we navigate a course somewhere between the secular days of the week and that ideal shabbes.

Sara Duker, a young woman who was killed in a horrific terrorist attack in Israel, was once my study partner in Jerusalem. She spoke to me about her ultimate shabbes. In the summer, she and some friends had gone camping, and had prepared everything beforehand that they needed to eat and drink. They used no flashlights, no matches, no stereos – they did not change the world a bit, and all they read were prayers and words of Torah. It, for her, was a reconnection to creation and Creator. I often imagine that shabbes as I walk through my suburban home.

Though I have been a rather inconsistent dance partner with the Sabbath bride, I remember her beauty. Shabbat is a poppy studded meadow in a Frankenstein-world – a day of slow motion that floats in on a sunset and I am a fool not to close my eyes, take a deep breath and whisper its praises. More than we have kept Shabbat, they say, shabbat has kept us. I believe this to be true and am eternally grateful.