Pause & Affect
A Shabbat Outlook
Shabbat, says the Talmud, is G-d’s gift to the Jewish people— and what a gift it is! It offers respite from labor and a break from the intrusion of our ubiquitous technologies. It allows family and community the time to connect and reflect without distraction. The warm smell of challah, the glowing candles, and the comfort of ritual all leave their imprint, shaping forever the meaning of family, peoplehood, and one’s place in the universe.
Yet to many, Shabbat is archaic, restrictive, and daunting, and it is therefore altogether ignored. The objective of this course is to remove the barriers that keep people from enjoying what Shabbat has to offer. We invite women of every level of observance to experience the mystery of this most precious of Jewish treasures on their own level. This mitzvah is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and so this course provides multiple entry points so that students at every level of affiliation can explore meaningful ways to enrich their lives with the lessons of Shabbat.
Gift of Rest
It is difficult to imagine today a society functioning without
a weekend, but this institution was unheard of in the ancient
world. Societies customarily celebrated seasonal holidays, but
the notion of a universal weekend—where an entire society
would take a day off each week—was nonexistent. In fact,
Greek and Roman writers habitually mocked the Jews for their
Shabbat. Yet, these mockeries were ignored by contemporary
Jews because of the profound meaning they found in Shabbat.
This lesson explores the deep riches that Jews have found in the
past—and continue to find today—in Shabbat observance. We learn
that some of the restrictions of Shabbat allow us to experience its
power: increased productivity, enhanced physical and emotional
health, a more robust sense of liberty, a better fostering of
relationships, and amplified feelings of happiness. We then climb
to the next rung to discover the vast spiritual treasures embedded
into this day—how Shabbat is a different day, a loftier day, a more
spiritual time, rendering it a conducive period for us to ponder and
explore our relationship with G-d and our overall life’s mission.
Glow of Peace
The prototypical Shabbat scene, as depicted in art and literature, is
of a family gathered around the elegantly set Friday night table, with
the Shabbat candles burning. These images portray a sense of peace,
love, and serenity. But it was not only in the best of circumstances
that Jews dedicated themselves to kindling the Shabbat flames.
In the Kovno Ghetto during the Holocaust, Jewish women asked
a local rabbi whether they could use electric lights to fulfill this
mitzvah because they could not obtain candles or oil. Analyzing this
question and the rabbi’s answer allows us to explore the contours,
function, and meaning of this powerful mitzvah. We will learn
the practical laws and customs as well as the rich symbolism and
meaning that is present in this ritual act that ushers in the Shabbat.
“Come, O bride, come O bride, come, O bride, O Shabbat queen.”
Why is Shabbat compared to the bride and not the groom? Why is
Shabbat compared to the queen and not the king? The liturgy of
Shabbat is replete with female references, and Jewish mysticism
teaches that Shabbat is truly feminine in multiple respects. By
exploring the mystique of Shabbat’s femininity, we will gain a
deeper insight into the nuances of Shabbat, a greater appreciation
of ourselves as women, and a newfound understanding of how
the two interrelate and feed off of each other in unique ways.
Much of what is written about Shabbat leads us to characterize it as
a day of transcendence, a day whose holiness naturally affords much
spiritual pleasure. Yet, when Jewish law formulates how to observe
Shabbat, it instructs one to take pleasure by not just one but three
sumptuous meals that are to be graced with lavish foods. If Shabbat
is characterized as a day of transcendence, why is so much emphasis
placed on eating and physical pleasures? Shouldn’t the primary
pleasure come from the sublime and ethereal? This lesson will explore
two Jewish answers to this question, which will reveal two distinct
philosophies concerning the concept of Shabbat, and more broadly, two
perspectives on the overall function of Judaism and our purpose in life.
There are certain laws and customs with regard to the Shabbat
meals, and this lesson provides the opportunity to discuss their
history and significance. Why is Kiddush recited on wine? What
is the significance of two covered loaves? Why is it so important
to consume fish and meat on Shabbat? Why do Ashkenazi Jews
eat gefilte fish, and why do Jews eat cholent (or some variation
thereof) on Shabbat? This lesson explores the origins and rationales
for each of these customs, rendering what was heretofore a
random food assortment that was merely good for the palate into
a unified and holistic journey that is also good for the soul.
Order from Chaos
For many, what Jewish law permits and proscribes on Shabbat
appears random and whimsical, and the dos and don’ts often
seem dry, almost mundane. This lesson looks back at how Jews
historically tried to demonstrate a logical structure that underlies
the laws of Shabbat observance, and how Jews attempted to infuse
this subject with soul and spirituality. We will explore some of the
interesting theories that were postulated by rabbis in nineteenthcentury
Germany and in the Chasidic courts of Eastern Europe.
A common refrain was that the laws and minutiae of Shabbat are
consistent with its deeper theme—to become more mindful of
how G-d is the anchor of our successes and accomplishments.
“Do not be afraid, Jacob My servant.” These words are customarily
sung by some Jews after the Shabbat queen has departed. The need
to “not be afraid” also appears in the text of the Havdalah, which we
recite at the conclusion of Shabbat. The person is about to shift into a
second gear, and this triggers spiritual qualms and uncertainties; but
in the end, she is assured that there is nothing to fear. By examining
the Havdalah ritual, we will acquire a deeper grasp for how Shabbat
and the weekday are two important modes of our spiritual service,
and how they both ought to interact with and enhance each other.