Why have Shabbat once a week? What is the value of a calendar cycle separate from the moon or sun?
Even before pandemic-driven stay-at-home orders severely restricted our Jewish communal activities, my professional life had largely moved online. I write and e-publish technical articles and am enrolled in two remote study programs so, by and large, my day-to-day activities did not change much with the lockdown.
However, I did lose some in-person events that marked my weeks: namely, a Tuesday morning figure drawing class and Shabbat morning Torah Study at the synagogue. With just losing those two activities, hours and days flowed indistinguishably one into the other. When I lose track of days, I miss online events, too. I can’t tell you the date without consulting the newspaper. It is forever Monday, or Thursday, or Sunday… or not.
I continue to understand the concepts of “now,” “just a moment ago,” and “in a few minutes,” but I seem to have lost the relationship with any specific or longer span of time. I imagine that those who do repetitive work every day seven days a week, or who languish without stimulation, share this sense of fuzzy time. Long term, we would feel the change of seasons, but short term, one moment, one day, and 10 days seem oddly similar.
And then suddenly, it’s Friday evening and time to light Shabbat candles and bless the wine and challah. I couldn’t tell you how long time has elapsed since the prior Shabbat, but every seven days becomes a marker for me. My “Jewish time” becomes real time.
Jewish time reminds me of an adage: The only thing Jews do on time is get married. Jewish time might mean that synagogue services always start on schedule, but participants wander in whenever they want. After all, it counts as attending as long as you arrive before everyone sings “Adon Olam,” doesn’t it?
Jewish time also refers to the annual cycle of the holidays. Unlike the secular calendar, Jewish holidays seem to fall on different days each year. In first or second grade, my public-school workbook asked students to circle the date for Christmas. I responded, “How should I know? Isn’t it different every year?” I may have been the only one to not know about December 25.
Our calendar also has a rhythm. Yes, the High Holidays are always “early” or “late,” but Hanukah always falls in the darkest part of the year, and Passover is indeed a harbinger of springtime (at least in the northern hemisphere). Our celebrations mark dates on the calendar but, more importantly, observable agricultural seasons as well as religious events. And between those holidays? Well, we always have Shabbat.
Right from the beginning, we learn that every seventh day is special: In chapter 1 of Genesis, God creates the world in six days and, on the seventh day, takes a break. Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 codify the Sabbath as a day of rest.
We internalize this seven-day cycle early through our secular and religious activities: In the U.S. and Canada, the standard school and work weeks typically run Monday-Friday. For Jews, Friday night is for lighting Shabbat candles, blessing wine, and a special meal or service at a synagogue. Saturday is for services too, along with doing something different than the rest of the week. Israel knocks off early on Friday and resumes on Sunday. Christian and Islamic practices focus on a different day off, but, like Jews, they also track the rhythmic seven-day cycle.
Joseph Tabory’s “Jewish Festivals in Late Antiquity” points out:
“The seven-day week, culminating in a special day, has no direct connection with the regular calendar or any astronomical basis, …. The Torah gives as its basis the unit of time in which the world was created. It is unique among Jewish appointed times in that its origin is not connected with a command of God to the Jewish people but is based on the universal idea of creation. It was established at the time of the creation of the world, before the existence of the Jewish people.” (p. 560)
Shabbat is a day of rest. Our steps to avoid COVID-19 infection is teaching me that Shabbat can also serves as a day of difference, of “alternate time.” Friday’s sunset could be no different than Thursday’s, a time marker notching off another day or another week. But Shabbat requires us to mark a more substantial difference, not so often as to be impractical but often enough that it’s easy to anticipate it; to make it hevdel, different. Regularity is key to keep track of our lives between other Jewish times and when days blur into each other.
Along the way, the traditions for welcoming Shabbat likely developed during the Second Temple period. They grew to include mystical customs of welcoming the Sabbath bride and of family blessings – Eshet Chayil (for which there are now modern and male versions) and blessings for the children – all built around the candles, bread, and wine. What could be more basic than light, food, and family?
Honoring the Shabbat – a time-keeping tradition that’s existed since the beginning of time – seem particularly important today. If you don’t already celebrate Shabbat, how about starting this Friday evening?
For more on this topic, visit our page COVID-19: Judaism Under Quarantine and subscribe to This Week in Jewish Life, our Friday email newsletter.