by Jordan Friedman
In his iconic work “The Sabbath,” Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Sabbath as a “palace in time.” He posits that part of the unique charm and wisdom of Judaism is its ability to sanctify periods of time instead of physical objects or spaces. Following this thinking, we can view the Sabbath as a voluntary and religiously-framed way to separate ourselves, individually and collectively, from the cares of daily life and work, in order to rest and concentrate on ourselves and those we love.
There is a need to reaffirm the potential for such organic, simple conceptualizations of the Sabbath in the face of certain trends in Reform Jewish life today. Some, looking to strengthen their observance of the Sabbath by drawing from the traditional concept of “building fences around the Torah,” take on various regulations and prohibitions (such as not driving or handling money) to guard against distraction from the message of the Sabbath. Too often, these well-meaning measures cause people to lose sight of the spirit of the Sabbath by concentrating on specific rituals and traditional prohibitions.
Indeed, complying with specific “demands” of Jewish tradition can be a lot of work, potentially preventing one from fully and restfully enjoying Shabbat, whether alone, with family, or (perhaps especially) with others who practice differently. Allow me to narrate two alternative experiences from my own life:
As the shadows of Friday evening fall, whether I’m at home in Skokie, IL, or at school in Beloit, WI, there is something different in the air.
At home, the house is clean, lending it a certain sanctity of separation from the rest of the week. Even the cats seem to behave differently! Although my parents rarely light candles or make special preparations for Shabbos, they mark it in their own way, by reading and relaxing rather than stressing and preparing for the next workday. If the TV isn’t on, I sit at the piano and play music to get myself in the mood for the Sabbath — Adler’s “Organ Prelude for Sabbath Eve,” Binder’s “Come, O Sabbath Day,” or Lewandowski’s “L’cha Dodi.”
After dinner, I retreat to my room, turn off my phone, and read the Sabbath Eve Service from one of a few editions of the Union Prayer Book. As my life is sanctified and elevated by the poetry and the cathartic familiarity of the words on the page, which have become like living, breathing friends, I imagine the experiences of millions of Jews who have prayed these same ancient words. For an instant, I am in communion with my co-religionists, across time and space.
Yet, there is far more to the experience than the uncontroversial, readily-explainable psychological and emotional benefits of worship. The true highlight of my evening is an intimate and mystical encounter with the real, present, living, loving God, Whose Presence is truly invited by my marking the Sabbath with prayer.
Lest I become too caught up in cosmic matters, I am periodically plunged back to earth to scold my cats, who like to play with the ribbon bookmarks on my prayer books. Yet, even scolding words dissolve into laughter at the heartwarming playfulness of my feline companions, whose antics may well be the work of the Sabbath Bride trying to tickle me into a lighter mood. It is sometimes sad and frustrating to go through all of this alone, without an appreciative temple community with which to share it, but for the moment its positive effects are worth the tension.
* * *
At school, students rush from academic buildings back to the residential side of campus as the last classes of the day let out, and there is a restful hush that is distinct from the uneasy quiet of study on any other day. I walk to town to buy challah, rushing back to straighten up the InterFaith House living room before Hillel members start to arrive for Shabbat.
Familiar faces arrive, and the tense politics of our diversity are suspended briefly while we exchange hugs and Shabbat greetings. We quickly take care of business and club matters, and light the Sabbath candles. Although the Shechinah is there with us in the flickering flames of the candles, awareness of this Presence is not shared by all. Different factions of the group argue over which words and melodies to use for Kiddush and HaMotzi, each complaining that “this is not how we did it at camp,” as if their particular summer camp minhagim were handed down at Sinai. If no one has angrily stormed out in protest, we continue, shifting into conversations about weekend plans or discussing the parasha for the week. Finally, the group slowly trickles out to dinner, leaving me and a friend or two to babysit the candles until they go out. Our conversations are calmer, blissfully spiritual, and more like Shabbat at home.
With its ups and downs, this is a frustrating — and authentic — way to usher in Shabbat. Although I am far removed from the gilded sanctuaries , stentorian pipe organs, and contemplative Liturgy of my Sabbath dreams, I have found that breaking down the fences we all build around our “palaces in time” can be a rewarding way to keep the Sabbath and confront modernity at the same time. One cannot grow without venturing outside one’s own comfort zone, and who knows? Perhaps a few curious souls will dare to walk past where the fence used to be, discovering hidden gems in a palace different from their own!
Jordan Friedman, originally from Skokie, IL, is a fourth-year student at Beloit College. He is an active member and ritual co-ordinator of the Beloit College Hillel and volunteer piano/organ accompanist at Congregation B’nai Abraham. He is also a member of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and serves as a digital media advocacy consultant. He hopes to become a rabbi.