Creating the Ambience of Shabbat

Posted on: Wednesday July 25, 2012

Adapted from the chapter on Shabbat by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, z”l, in The Observant Life

Among Ashkenazic Jews, even those who do not speak Yiddish, the term shabbosdik is often used to describe activities appropriate for Shabbat, but defining what activities do or do not qualify can be difficult. One often hears the argument stated, sometimes forcefully, that certain forbidden activities—activities like sewing or writing a letter or going for a drive in the country—are relaxing and pleasant and should therefore be considered entirely consonant with the spirit of Shabbat. While they may be very enjoyable, this approach overlooks the crucial detail that Shabbat is not merely a day of pleasant activities, but also a profound and spiritually charged context for worshiping God, which may never take place in the contravention of divine law. But it is also true that merely being permitted is not reason enough to describe a specific activity as shabbosdik—and it is also so that a Shabbat day lived in sync with the halakhah, but which ends up being boring, stultifying, or even oppressive, is almost by definition not an act of worship. In a sense, it is the way we spend our leisure hours on Shabbat that is key: praying, eating, and sleeping are already programmed as part of the day; the challenge rests in how we choose to spend our time beyond those activities.

For almost all, Shabbat observance includes Torah study. For people who work hard at their jobs and at serving their families, there is often very little quality time during the week to study Torah, or even casually to discuss topics of Jewish interest. Shabbat, on the other hand, provides the perfect opportunity for Jewish learning. In some communities, the rabbi leads classes in the synagogue on Shabbat. In others, there are havurah fellowships that bring friends together to study Torah on Shabbat. Learning may also take place in private homes, where families spend time together studying the weekly Torah portion or other texts of Jewish interest. Moreover, countless individuals dedicate a portion of each Shabbat to personal study, delving into Jewish texts on their own in a way they have no time to do during the week.

As we visit with each other, eat together, and take Shabbat walks together, a lot of time on Shabbat is spent talking. Yet the Talmud (at BT Shabbat 113b) teaches that “your Shabbat talk should not be like your weekday talk.” Rashi’s simple comment is that one should avoid talking about business and money matters, but most moderns will want to take an even broader approach and try to limit conversation on Shabbat to matters of the spirit. Talk on Shabbat should be elevating and inspirational. Conversation at the Shab-bat table, especially, should be of sacred matters and should center on questions of values, ethics, and morality. There should be no place in Shabbat discourse for vulgar or profane talk. Of course, one should avoid gossip and talebearing as assiduously on Shabbat as on weekdays, or even perhaps even more so. And one should avoid any sort of conversation on Shabbat that could lead to argument, tension, or friction. Indeed, there is a stirring midrash on Exodus 35:3, the scriptural passage prohibiting the kindling of a flame on Shabbat, that interprets the fire mentioned therein as symbolic of angry, contentious disagreement.

For many families, singing is a very traditional way to establish bonds of closeness and intimacy at the Shabbat table. Special table songs called z’mirot are assigned to each of the Shabbat meals, although few observe these assignments carefully and most sing z’mirot as the spirit moves them without reference to the specific meal for which they were originally composed. Usually sung at the end of the meal, z’mirot can also be sung between courses to help slow down the meal, thus prolonging it so it can be savored all the more fully.

For many, having uninterrupted time to read is one of the great pleasures of Shabbat. However, the same rules that apply to Shabbat conversation should apply here as well. Ideally, reading on Shabbat should be spiritually elevating and Jewishly relevant. We should always try to choose reading material that reflects the atmosphere and ambience of Shabbat. Rabbi David Booth, writing in the winter 2010 issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, notes the halakhic problems in using a Kindle or other e-readers on Shabbat: even if it were to be turned on before Shabbat, it would still not permitted to adjust it by pushing a button to turn the page during Shabbat. (In addition, turning the page in a sense erases the words from the previous page, which would also constitute a forbidden activity on Shabbat.) A deeper question is how these “weekday devices” draw us away from the special atmosphere we try to create on Shabbat.

For others, a Shabbat walk is a regular part of the day, but here, too, tradition dictates that even something as ordinary as walking can be done in a way that reflects the sanctity of the day. The Talmud (BT Shabbat 113a) teaches us that our mode of walking on Shabbat should differ from that of weekdays. (This is usually interpreted to mean we should take smaller steps, and not rush around at breakneck speeds.) One should also take care not to violate the prohibitions against carrying things from one domain to another on Shabbat unless one is in space bounded by an eiruv. An eiruv is an artificial combination of all the homes and streets in a given area into a single domain through the use of poles and wires that act as the newly created domain’s symbolic boundaries. The laws that govern setting up an eiruv are exceedingly complex and rest far beyond the purview of this essay.

While Shabbat is supposed to be a day of spiritual renewal, it is also a day of physical rest. That being the case, the Shabbat nap is a distinguished and widely observed feature of Shabbat observance in every corner of the Jewish world. In fact, one clever sage saw in the Hebrew letters of the word Shabbat a hidden message: sheinah b’shabbat ta’anug, sleep on Shabbat is a joy! The traditional table song, Mah Y’didut, says this explicitly: “And sleep is praiseworthy as a means of reviving the soul.”