Keeping the Sabbath

"The more I read, the more I was struck by the power of the idea."

By Judith Shulevitz
Photograph: Illustration by: Guyco

A decade ago, I began to take a passionate interest in the Sabbath, the ancient weekly day of rest. I told myself this was purely a matter of intellectual curiosity, but it wasn’t. My feelings were murkier than that. I was ravenous for something, though I didn’t know what. I knew I wanted to keep the Sabbath and teach my children (then unborn) to keep it. But at the thought of passing an entire day following strange rules while refraining from customary recreations, I was knocked flat by a wave of anticipated boredom. To do it right, I would have to give up so much! I would have to become that dreadful thing, a religious person.

I had always associated being religious with all sorts of unfortunate character traits. In my Conservative Jewish family, we regarded religiosity as obsessive-compulsive, masochistic, intellectually narrow, irrational, antimodern. We did not think of ourselves as religious. We kept the Sabbath by lighting candles and having dinner together on Friday night. We kept kosher, sort of, by not mixing milk and meat and by eating only kosher-slaughtered meat. But we did not keep two sets of dishes, the way Orthodox Jews do, and all of us except my mother ate whatever we liked in restaurants.

And yet I wanted to try keeping the Sabbath again, in some form. I realized that religion is made up of rites and customs handed down like pieces of antique furniture, their value forgotten along with the ancestors who treasured them. To dig up the meaning of this inheritance and to honor those ancestors—that is what I wanted to do.

So I read everything I could find having to do with the Sabbath. This was not exactly a socially productive obsession. Revealing what I’d been reading up on was a good way to cut a vigorous conversation short. Still, the more I read, the more I was struck by the power of the idea.

The Sabbath—as I’m using the term—is the day of the week on which Jews and Christians (at least those who accept the Sabbath) observe the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.”

But the Jewish Sabbath—observed on Saturdays—isn’t wholly based on the fourth commandment. Customs such as candle lighting, Friday-night dinners, not driving, not handling money and not turning lights on and off were shaped more by rabbinic law than by the Torah. The law identifies 39 main categories of work that may not be done on the Sabbath unless the life of an individual or the welfare of a community is at stake. How can Jews bear to obey all these laws? To become religious, it seemed to me, was to brave a leap into the absurd, to give up your ability to control your world.

A decade later, after exploring the Sabbath and writing a book about it, I find that observing the day is not about absurdity; it is about mitigating a particular loneliness. Religious laws and rituals remind us that we live in exile, in perfect harmony neither with one another nor with God. At the core of the Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing for something that is out of reach, and I find that satisfying, even though I observe the day only halfway. That sometimes feels fine to me and sometimes shameful, but also inevitable.

My husband and I work hard at the celebratory aspects of the Sabbath. On Friday we make an elaborate dinner and invite friends over or go to their homes. We bless the children, the wine, the challah and the washing of our hands. We put away our wallets. We no longer drive to synagogue, but sometimes the children’s whining about the 13-block walk forces us into a cab, which entails driving and handling money. And recently I confronted the specter of Saturday-morning soccer practice and was defeated by it. My son Moses now plays soccer instead of going to synagogue, and my husband goes with him. I feel guilty about not building better fences around the day, but apparently not guilty enough.

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