On the 7th Day (Excerpt)
by Susan Magidson
I confess that I fell in love with the Sabbath years ago when I was living in Israel. Until then, I’d never thought much about it, except to be annoyed when stores were closed on Sunday and I needed to buy something.
I admit that when I arrived in Israel, I found it a huge frustration to have everything shut down one day each week. Public transportation stopped, and I had no car. Nearly everything was closed—malls, movie theaters, museums. What was I going to do with this empty day?
It took me a while to adjust to this unfamiliar rhythm, to realize that actually I was being given a holiday once a week.
The Jewish Sabbath is ushered in and out by beautiful rituals. It begins at sunset on Friday by gathering family, lighting candles, singing prayers, blessing the children, and enjoying a festive meal. Some of you may remember the scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” in which a Jewish peasant family puts on their finest clothes and sets a beautiful table to welcome the Sabbath. In Jewish tradition, everyone rests on the Sabbath, even the poorest, hardest working folks.
Most Friday nights, a colleague would invite me home for dinner. There was no place else to go, nothing else to do, so we spent long evenings savoring the abundant food and conversation. It felt like Thanksgiving. My Saturdays were quiet days. Sometimes I slept in, or read, or went for a walk. Sometimes a friend with a car would take me on a daytrip to a national park.
Whatever I did, I couldn’t run errands and there was no expectation that I would work. No one ever called me with a work question on the Sabbath—in fact, it was unusual for the telephone to ring at all.
This downtime was particularly notable because Israelis are the hardest working people I’ve ever met. They’re incredibly productive, and keep ridiculously long hours during the workweek. I couldn’t keep up with them, and at first, I wondered how they did it. Now I’d guess it’s got something to do with taking Sabbath time.
The Jewish Sabbaths I’ve experienced weren’t only about rest; they were also about pleasure, about savoring creation. I know this may sound counter to those of you whose image of the Sabbath includes strict rules and discomfort, such as scratchy restrictive clothing, enforced quiet, prohibitions against dancing or singing or playing, and long hours in church or synagogue.
Orthodox Jews do observe long lists of prohibitions, but my experience of Orthodox Sabbaths was joyous, not dour. Jews do sing and dance on the Sabbath. Following G-d’s example in Genesis, what’s prohibited is the work of creation. These restrictions give Jews time to slow down—to appreciate each other and the everyday beauty surrounding us. In fact, in Jewish tradition, making love on the Sabbath is considered a special mitzvah—a particularly good thing to do.
The Jewish Sabbath also ends with ritual. When three stars appear in the sky Saturday evening, Jews light a special braided candle and then douse it in a cup of wine. We also sniff cinnamon or cloves to carry the sweet memory of the Sabbath with us into the workweek.
There’s a lot of wisdom in these ancient practices—everyone taking Sabbath time together, marking the Sabbath with the setting sun, using ritual to usher the Sabbath in and out, and observing special rules that remind us that this is holy time.