It’s late Friday afternoon and there’s a flurry of activity in the Orthodox home where I’m staying. Carrie has been cooking all afternoon, and the girls hustle around making sure their electronics are all charged. As it gets closer to sunset the pace increases with last-minute checks to make sure everything is ready. In Orthodox homes, Shabbat, or Sabbath, is observed each Friday night to Saturday night rigorously to the letter of the (Biblical) law. The laws of Shabbat are explained well here http://www.jewfaq.org/shabbat.htm, but in short, Shabbat is a day of rest, which back in the day was a precious gift from God for the overworked peasant folk. It’s meant to be a day of spiritual renewal. Among things that Jews are prohibited from doing on Shabbat are lighting or extinguishing a fire, which in modern times includes using anything with an on/off switch (lights, iPhone, stove, automobile, etc.). Sounds like my cue to get out of dodge and go on a road trip through southern Israel. But first, I’m invited to partake in Shabbat dinner, an experience I wouldn’t miss for the world.
Shabbat begins just before sunset with Carrie ushering in the Sabbath Bride by lighting candles. She invites me to partake and helps me recite the Hebrew blessing over one of the two candles. I find myself strangely moved by the peaceful ceremony, and it’s my first glimpse into the value of carrying on traditions that make no logical sense in the modern world. Then the guests arrive and the party begins.
Shabbat dinner is a special occasion when families gather together, put aside distractions, and enjoy each other’s company in conversation – another impressive tradition that makes a lot of sense in today’s hectic world. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to take photos of Carrie’s beautiful table, and I just barely overcome the urge to surreptitiously record the proceedings. Before feasting, Scott leads the family in the traditional Shabbat blessings over bread and wine, a few Hebrew songs are sung, and then I’m startled by one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: one by one, Scott and Carrie stand over each of their children, place their hands on the child’s head and murmur a blessing into their hair, ending with a kiss on top of the head. Even though I don’t understand the words I’m moved to tears by this obvious display of love. Rosa, a 36-year-old close family friend who is a dinner guest, tells me that her parents call her from halfway around the world each week to bless her. What a gift it must be to once a week stop everything and express your love for your children, and what an equal blessing it must be to receive this love. I later look up the blessing and learn that this is what is said:
May God bless and guard you. May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you. May the presence of God be with you and give you peace.
My Orthodox family may follow all the rules, but they’re no fools: living in a modern world means smart people find work-arounds. I mean, who wants to live without lights for 24 hours? Or without air conditioning in the heat of summer? Modern observant Jews make use of technology like timers and crock pots to help them live comfortably on Shabbat. So after dinner the dishwasher gets loaded and will automatically start up around midnight without anyone pressing the switch. A piece of cardboard has already been put over the light in the refrigerator, which means they can open it without breaking the “no turning on lights” rule. Smart cookies, they are, and these work-arounds guarantee a peaceful and comfortable Shabbat spent reading, relaxing and napping. It’s another tradition that sounds much nicer to me than spending my day off running around getting groceries and collecting dry cleaning.
Israel as a nation takes Shabbat seriously. All public transportation shuts down around 2:00 Friday afternoon and doesn’t start up again until Sunday. Stores and most gas stations, except those in Arab neighborhoods, are closed. For visitors, this means advance planning to avoid getting caught with no groceries, no transportation or an empty gas tank on Saturday. Jewish holidays follow the same pattern as Shabbat, but often for multiple days.