by Jane Wishner
Shabbat has meant different things to me at different times in my life. And different factors influenced my observance: my parents, community, location (am I at camp or living in Albuquerque), my age, my marital status, my children and the age of my children, my work, my travel, my participation in the Jewish community, and the combination of difficult choices I’ve had to make at every stage of my life about what I do and how I spend my time. And, for me, as a woman and a mother attempting to balance family, work and community, Shabbat observance has been shaped by the self- imposed obligations regarding what it is I need to do to sustain all three of them, often leaving out what I need to do to sustain myself.
We did not observe Shabbat at home when I was young. I found worship services at my synagogue boring and uninspiring. But in junior high and high school, I discovered youth group, “creative” services, and music. And we began lighting candles and saying the blessings in my home on Friday night.
The most engaged Shabbat experiences in my life were at camp – Olin Sang Ruby Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. When I went to Israel to live on a secular Kibbutz for several months, I was stunned to hear Israelis use the phrase Lakachat Shabbat — literally to “take” a Sabbath – to describe a day off from work in the middle of the week. Even at age 17, I knew that Shabbat means more than a day off from work.
My Shabbat observance has changed as my life circumstances have changed. But even when I’ve done things regularly, it has never been every single week. When we were first married, my husband and I did blessings on Friday night – even if it was before going out to eat. This was something I had not done when I was single and living alone. Later, our children became the focus of our observance through a mix of activities: monthly family services, Friday night blessings and dinner at home, Shabbat dinners with other families, Saturday mornings making French toast from challah, and then more frequent services as b’nei mitzvah study began. In recent years, I have volunteered to read Torah on occasion to engage myself in the text. Now, my favorite thing is Shabbat morning worship in our chapel – for me it is a return to the engagement with liturgy and music that originally inspired me decades ago. (This is fostered by the exquisite guitar and music of our rabbi, Joe Black.)
As a woman and a mother, I’ve struggled with the traditional role of the woman on Shabbat. I would love to smell chicken soup in our home, and have a beautifully set table every Friday night, but I want someone else to prepare it. During periods when I did not work full-time and the children were young, I enjoyed preparing a Friday night meal for my family and for our friends. But at this stage of my life, on Friday evening, I am exhausted and want to have someone else cook or I feel like relaxing and watching a movie. Giving myself permission not to fulfill the traditional woman’s role in creating Shabbat space on Friday evening has been hard.
So I have struggled and explored different practices during different periods of my life.
In writing this, I realized that every observance I have emphasized today has been with other people – my husband, our children, our congregation and community. What do people who are alone do to observe Shabbat? How do people without children observe Shabbat? How are our congregations creating welcoming Shabbat experiences for everyone?
For the first time in my overly busy life as Rob and I approach life in our empty nest, I think about what true rest and spiritual renewal mean. I am not rigid or hard on myself. But at this stage in my life, I see Shabbat as a gift that God has commanded us to give to ourselves: a gift, not a duty; an opportunity, not an obligation.
Jane Wishner is a member of Congregation Albert, Albuquerque, NM, and a member of the Union Board’s Executive Committee.
Originally posted as part of Ten Minutes of Torah