by Virginia Avniel Spatz and Cary O’Brien
A checkbook and a papier-maché cup are central to our family’s Shabbat. These ritual items – as important to us as candles or kiddush cup – play an essential role in the “shutting off” that welcomes the sabbath to our house.
It’s difficult enough finding observances that honor Jewish and non-Jewish beliefs, and we further complicated life by participating in both a shomer shabbat havurah and a Reform congregation. (“Why can’t we use crayons? We colored last week!” “Havdallah now? It’s still light out!”) But my non-Jewish partner and I learned together the value of working hard at not working – or fretting, stewing, or arguing – on Shabbat.
For much of our married life, one or both of us was self-employed and frequently concerned about business and family finances. Experiencing any rest, we realized, required us both to avoid discussing work and more general money matters, inevitably leading back to work. But keeping Shabbat free of finances – and related worries and arguments – meant, until we learned better, scrambling to deal with money issues on Friday nights. This was not conducive to welcoming Shabbat or guests, so we gradually moved to addressing financial concerns, whenever possible, on Thursdays. The Internet has replaced much paper in our lives, but the checkbook remains a symbol of the pre-Shabbat clearing of the decks. That Thursday-evening ritual continues to transform our lives in ways we never imagined when we first endeavored to carve out a little weekly rest for ourselves and our children.
We found that the practice discourages procrastination: When you know you are heading into “finance-free” days, you have to consider which bills might be late, family members without necessary supplies, etc. Furthermore, anticipating a day of rest encourages you to complete financial tasks so that things are not hanging over your head for Shabbat. In addition, we found the weekly clearing of the decks helps us avoid the trap of indefinitely postponing difficult topics.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the practice taught us how thoroughly money – and attendant anxiety – pervades our lives. Seeking topics for family discussion that steer clear of finances was itself instructive, prompting us to view the world through a different lens. Thus, the seemingly simple act of setting aside money for a day began to shape the entire week and bring an important rhythm to our lives.
Admittedly, “finance-free” does not always mean restful. As DC residents, our family and guests often have a lot to “shut off”: If it’s not local politics, it’s national (including the double whammy of Congressional interference in local affairs) or international. The national stage brings a variety of dire, urgent causes to our conference rooms and our streets. Griefs from around the world mean our flags seem more often at half-mast than full. The ordinary range of urban ills is augmented here by State-related security issues and motorcade-related gridlock. And, of course, as elsewhere, individuals bring cares, annoyances, and angers all their own.
Some of the issues participants bring to the Shabbat table aren’t easy, or appropriate, to shed permanently: a personal rift, an unfinished piece of business, an unsolved problem. I tell guests that stuff really needing attention will still be there after dark on Saturday or, if necessary, after dinner (and some stuff, we’ll discover, is better left unattended). But a Shabbat experience for any of us requires that each of us try, at least temporarily, to set some things aside. And so, on Friday nights, our family passes around a vessel, a cup of discontent – ours is a papier-maché cup created for the purpose, but anything will do – into which each participant is asked to “drop” whatever is in the way of welcoming Shabbat.
Some participants give the cup a perfunctory grasp. Some meditate a few moments. Occasionally someone visibly struggles to shed a rough week or a personal issue. A few shrug or sneer. I recall more than one Friday night – especially at larger, multi-generational tables – when fidgeting or thoughtlessness during the cup’s first round prompted someone at the table to request a second pass. On the whole, the cup provides a way for us, individually and collectively, to recognize the many weights that we carry and consider the value of setting them aside, if only for a day.
Although we don’t share many aspects of Jewish observance, my husband and I can share an important part of Shabbat. “Shabbat means you always know where you are in the week, with its daily struggles, and when it will be time to put those aside,” he says. “Vacations are once a year, if you’re lucky. But Shabbat is never far off.”
Virginia Avniel Spatz is a writer who blogs on Jewish topics at A Song Every Day. She is active in Temple Micah and other D.C. congregations. Her husband, Cary O’Brien, is an engineer who makes three public Jewish “pilgrimages” per year, although not generally on festival dates.