Questions. We love questions, and we love asking questions of our rabbis. How many letters are in the Torah? (304,805, assembled into 79,847 words). How deep is the Dead Sea? Is it the saltiest body of water in the world? (It’s more than 1,200 feet deep. Though it is situated at lowest place on earth, it is not the saltiest). Why does Hebrew read from right to left? (The best answer I know of is that right-handed chisel users tended to chisel from right to left when incising on stone). What is the median letter in the Torah? (In Leviticus 11:42, the vav in the word gachon). How many Jews live in the Puget Sound area? (About 35,000, based on the Jewish Federation population survey of 2000).
We seem to have a special place for those questions that seem factual, but are in fact completely opinion-based. Who really deserves to be called the MVP of the NBA? No matter what any magazine tells us, isn’t Seattle the most livable city in the continental United States? Which synagogue is the warmest and most inviting to newcomers? An important question, one that I frequently discuss, is, “Which holiday is the most important?” Some people prefer the question to read as “What holiday is my favorite?”
A good case could be made for Pesach — after all, where would we be if not for the liberation from Egyptian bondage? In addition, our own experience of slavery has prompted us to work for the freedom of others. The seder has maintained its status as the most-observed Jewish ritual. We surely feel its power.
Yom Kippur could score high in this regard. Though not as mournful as Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the Temples, it is certainly the most serious and introspective. After all, refraining from feeding our appetites and afflicting the soul certainly has consequences. Rosh Hashanah, the annual meeting of the Jewish people, would be a close second. This Day of Remembering calls to mind family and history.
Purim and Hanukkah have their own merits. Each marks the triumph of the few against the many. Hanukkah has been trumpeted as the Jewish counterweight to Christmas, but Hanukkah, despite the gift giving, deep frying, and early-winter attention, doesn’t have the depth to carry the day.
Sukkot is a possibility. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Dan Fink likes to say, “any Jewish holiday that encourages camping is a good one.” This reliving of the Exodus and celebrating of the fall harvest has a lot of potential for learning. We translate it into modern terms — noting how fragile our lives are; how thankful we are for shelter; how vulnerable we are without a home.
Yet I maintain that Shabbat is the essential Jewish holiday. Appearing every week, its very frequency is a reminder of our Jewishness. It has a regularity that adds meaning, providing a frame for each week. It is both common and distinct. It may seem ordinary due to its frequency — and yet no day is more unique.
Shabbat contains all of the key Jewish religious themes: In the kiddush, the prayer that marks the beginning of Shabbat. The very rhythm, and the way it is sung and not spoken, reflects that joy.
The big themes of our lives, the non-tangibles that we prize exist with Shabbat as well: Community, learning, reflecting on what matters.
Let me suggest three ways of marking Shabbat. For those already there, they will seem exceedingly familiar. For those considering making Shabbat their own, the initial novelty has the potential to develop into something much richer.
The first: Invite people to your erev Shabbat Friday night table. If this activity is new for you, it may seem awkward at first. Invite others more familiar with the table rituals, i.e., candles, wine, challah. For many, taking this first step will be the biggest challenge, but there’s no shortage of teachers willing to help in this Jewish community. Find a partner to take on this Shabbat initiative with you. Call or e-mail a rabbi or cantor. We are eager to match you with a Shabbat mentor.
The Internet will provide you with a wealth of information as well, but the key message is: Shabbat is not so daunting. Even if you did not grow up with a Shabbat tradition, it is within your reach. Begin small — allow for expansion.
These three sites are a starting point for “how-to” and ways to fortify your Shabbat table:
Union for Reform Judaism: http://www.urj.org/holidays/shabbat/celebrate/
United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism: http://www.uscj.org/Shabbat5092.html
Orthodox Union: http://www.ou.org/holidays/shabbat
And for those who prefer books, let me recommend The How to Handbook of Jewish Living.
The resources are plentiful. Take the time and make the effort. The rewards are great.
The second: Turn off your computer for a full day. If you want to be really daring, refuse to carry your cell phone as well. Six days a week, this mobile technology enables us to stay close to everyone. I am never more than a few seconds away from work. The cumulative result? We are a wired population. We are fully alert and engaged in the world of work. Shabbat is designed as an antidote. Rest. Refrain from creating. Allow yourself l’hinafash — to regain your human soul. Look people in the eyes, talk with the people in your home, synagogue and neighborhood.
The third: Treat yourself well on Shabbat. Live out the word “oneg,” which means joy, delight, pleasure. Yes, we usually associate oneg Shabbat with sponge cake and a glass of punch, but in fact the words point to something much larger. Make the day different. Sleep in. Determine how you will transform this day, known to the rest of the world as Saturday, into Shabbat.
Anticipate Shabbat. Seek to arrive at this island in time. Plan ahead. Will it be a special meal? Double desserts? Leisurely time with a friend? A time to learn? Time with family? Figure what you will add to your week — and joy. Give yourself permission and even encouragement to bring oneg into your life on Shabbat.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great scholars and thinkers of the 20th century, asked his own question: “Who is a Jew?” Among his answers: “A person called upon…to cultivate passion for justice and the ability to experience the arrival of Friday night as an event.”
Both are possible. Both are attainable ideals. Heschel reminds us that it is important to engage deeply in this world, to develop our sense of righteousness. Our actions in the world matter. At the same time, we need to celebrate ongoing creation and the possibility of resting. Friday night is an event — one in which one of us has a standing invitation. Shabbat shalom is more than a greeting — it is a refreshing hope for us and the world.