Connecting with the Power of Shabbat Across Time and Space

By Rabbi David Weiner

This summer the Weiner family had the opportunity to travel around the world. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity for relaxation, learning, and renewal that my congregation, Knesset Israel, provided, and it is a privilege to share some stories of our trip with the wider Jewish community of the Berkshires.

The Israeli weekend starts on Thursday night, so our decision to wedge the family into a car and drive from Jerusalem to Tiberias on a late Thursday afternoon last July might have been a little ambitious. Road construction around Israel’s capital added a 45-minute delay. The heat, already oppressive, tested the air conditioning as we turned north near the Dead Sea, then hit rush hour traffic near the Sea of Galilee. When we arrived at our “fully-equipped Glatt kosher luxury holiday home” in Moshav HaZorim, a religiously-observant agricultural community, we were thrilled to discover a clean place in a bucolic setting. I started nosing around, however, and found that there was absolutely nothing in the kitchen – no dishes, no cutlery, no pots, no coffee machine, no stove, no oven. I suppose that’s one way to keep the property kosher. Exhausted and exasperated, we packed the kids back into the car to get dinner and figure out the rest.

We were relieved to find an Israeli knock-off of Party City in a nearby strip mall. Abandoning any thoughts of environmental responsibility, we started loading up our cart, and one of the clerks, Shuli, came over to help. Noting our accents, she welcomed us to the area and engaged us in conversation. When I explained our predicament, Shuli – who was definitely not religious or an English speaker – sympathized. Then she started shopping for us. Plates, plastic cutlery, foil pans, knives, bowls and a cutting board - only what was on sale - flew off the shelves into our cart as Shuli recommended must-do activities for our week in the Galilee, as well as her favorite beaches and hikes. When Shuli insisted that we buy a colorful paper tablecloth – “They’re only 15 shekels for three! How can you have Shabbat without a tablecloth?” – I just gave in and chose three.

My wife, Judith, however, seized the moment. She asked Shuli: “Is there any place around here that we can pick up good kosher food for Shabbat?” Shuli wasn’t sure, but she took on the challenge, speaking with the other store staff and calling some friends. A few minutes later she gave us the name of a banquet hall that runs a Shabbat food market, its address and hours, a phone number and advice from her friend about which dishes to buy. Tired as we were, we knew that this was Israel at its best.

The next night we recognized that Shuli had been right on the mark. The hot pink paper tablecloth made all the difference to our mood on Shabbat evening, and the food was extraordinary. We decided on the spot that, although we’re willing to be patient and compromise on many details, our son Ari will be getting married in Catering by Gabbai’s banquet hall above Tiberias, home of the world’s most succulent turkey schnitzel.

It's hard to convey how much we appreciated this moment of fleeting connection among Jews of very different backgrounds – American and Israeli, Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern, visitor and local, religious and secular, kosher-observant and not. Shuli understood exactly what our challenge was and took care of us like she’d take care of family. Despite all sorts of potential barriers to understanding, we had tapped into the connective tissue of the Jewish people.

The Jews are in desperate need of something to hold us together as a people these days. We are a people of many disagreements, whose variety of approaches to serving God, anxieties about the present moment, and the future of the Jewish people sometimes lead us to ugly arguments. Similarities in religion and politics used to bind more of us across time and space; but today they have begun to fray, perhaps irreparably. I don’t really want to dwell on it. Let’s just say that the fact that you feel comfortable in your home congregation doesn’t mean you’ll feel comfortable with services in any synagogue, anywhere. Diversity in liturgy, custom, or gender roles might get in the way. And, for that matter, the center-left politics that held sway in the Jewish world for the last few decades are very much up for debate too. Some of us, informed by our history and values, continue to agree with those approaches and maybe even want to lean more fully into them; others, also informed by our history and values, couldn’t disagree more vehemently. Indeed, some scholars suggest that consensus in these areas might be the defining anomaly of 20th century Jewish communities. At core, we are the People of Israel, a people that thinks and argues and wrestles with God, with the world, and with each other before we prevail.

I don’t believe that either religion or politics will hold the Jews together in the coming decades. We are going to keep fighting because we know what the stakes are and we care about finding the best path forward. Although life would be more pleasant if we toned it down a little, even vociferous disagreement doesn’t mean the Jewish world must fall apart. We just need to discover ways to connect with each other that transcend religion and politics.

In our travels this summer, our family experienced the power of one of these meeting places – Shabbat. The core of the instant connection that Shuli fostered with us late that Thursday night was Shabbat, and that was only one Shabbat experience among many that reinforced the importance of the day, even as we wandered all over the world. Even when everything else pulls the Jewish people apart, if we stick by Shabbat, Shabbat will take care of us.

The night after we met Shuli, we participated in a Shabbat that was the heart of the life of a Jewish community but, surprisingly, not in a religious way. That Friday evening in Moshav HaZorim, the five of us walked past homes, fields, and cowsheds to evening services. There were two synagogues in this moshav – one Moroccan and the other Ashkenazi, both what we’d call in the United States Modern Orthodox and Israelis call Religious Zionist. We do love our labels. My sons, Joe and Ari, and I went downstairs in the larger, Ashkenazi synagogue; Judith and my daughter Shira went upstairs. Oddly, there were only a few dozen men present in the large sanctuary. Although the people were clearly devout, the davening was dismal, verging on tuneless. Bored to distraction sitting in a women’s gallery where they couldn’t see or hear, Judith and Shira lasted only ten minutes before descending to the courtyard between the two synagogues. Only decorum and a commitment to being a good guest kept me from stepping outside. Yet it was outside the synagogue that we found the soul of Shabbat in this community. In the courtyard, the entire moshav – hundreds of men and women, families with children and elders, teens and adults – had gathered. Dressed primarily in white, they were buzzing about, reconnecting joyously with friends and neighbors. At first it seemed odd to me that this religious community – with its two mikvahs, three yeshivot, married women with covered heads, men wearing kipot and tzitzit – had synagogues that were more than half empty. But I get it – while only some people in HaZorim pray on Friday night, everyone there makes time for Shabbat. And it is this facet of Shabbat that connects the people of HaZorim to each other, and also to their brothers and sisters all over the world, and to us. and to all Jews who ever were and ever will be.

The very next week, we spent Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Though we lived in Jerusalem for a year 20 years ago, neither Judith nor I had ever celebrated Shabbat in Tel Aviv. We expected the Shabbat to be completely different from the one that preceded it – after all, we were now in the beating heart of secular Israel, where Shabbat means time on the beach, not time in shul. What we saw surprised and inspired us. In this ostensibly secular city, Shabbat felt very different from the other days of the week. We attended an open-air instrumental Friday night service overlooking the sea, alongside perhaps a thousand Israelis and tourists. As we walked back to our apartment, looking up at the windows of nearby apartment buildings, everyone seemed to be having Shabbat dinner. The next day we threw ourselves into the Tel Aviv Shabbat experience, walking three blocks to the beach. What we saw along the way was that, while the beaches and parks were full, the offices and businesses, streets and restaurants were quiet. People were out walking, spending time with family and friends and reconnecting with what is most important. It wasn’t so different from the town up north, or from Jerusalem. Even in the absence of religion, Shabbat apparently holds Tel Aviv together and connects its residents with the rest of the Jewish world across time and space.

Even outside Israel, Shabbat creates and reinforces the bonds of community among Jews. In Rome, Joe and I chose to stay in a kosher bed and breakfast, and the owner, a Libyan Jew, invited us to join him in synagogue on Friday night and Saturday. Though we felt welcome, the worship in this tiny synagogue was very different – Joe had never experienced anything like it. But then there was kiddush. There must have been twice as many people at kiddush as there were in services. The room seemed a lot like the synagogues of my childhood, full of elders with thick Yiddish accents and an appetite for schnapps. In Rome the liquor of choice was different, and the elders, who had been expelled from Tripoli in 1967, had thick Arabic accents, but it was all the same. In synagogue on Shabbat, these men and women connected with each other, sat in community, literally ate over each other’s shoulders and loved every minute. They helped me understand that Shabbat was their day to celebrate their Jewish identity and the bonds of a community that even displacement couldn’t tear. The joy was as inspiring as it was deafening, a true oneg Shabbat. It had to happen on Shabbat – that’s just the way we roll.

For all its power, though, Shabbat apparently also has its limits. For one, you really can’t do Shabbat alone. Our travels involved a couple of lonely Shabbatot – one in a village by the Ligurian Sea, and another in a remote corner of New Zealand. We thought we could make it work. We tried to differentiate Shabbat from the rest of the week, adjusting our meal schedule and preparation so as not to cook on Shabbat, saying kiddush, trying to enjoy the mountains and the beach, rather than shopping or consuming or traveling long distances. But while relaxing on the seventh day is undoubtedly better than working on the seventh day, isolation diminished our experience of Shabbat. It’s okay on occasion, but I’d hate to see it become a habit. Like Jewish prayer, which requires a minyan, Shabbat works better in community.

The synagogue, as an institution, can only take Shabbat so far. Really, it is the participation of individuals, couples, and families in this incredible tradition that will help us take Shabbat to the next level, together. You don’t have to love synagogue services to make time for Shabbat. Our summer experiences reminded me that, although they overlap, prayer and Shabbat are not actually the same thing. I hope that this year we’ll all take steps towards intensifying our practice of Shabbat – nothing radical, just small steps. For my part, I’m contemplating the meaning of ‘Shabbat clothes’ – what would it mean to maintain a different wardrobe for Shabbat than for the rest of the week? But for others growth might come in the form of more frequent Shabbat dinners with guests at home, lighting candles more religiously, staying longer at kiddush, or cutting back on smartphone use or shopping for that one sacred day a week. Slowly, slowly, Shabbat will help us rediscover our connections with each other, with the entire Jewish world, with Creation, with eternity - across all our differences, and across time and space.

Rabbi David Weiner is spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield.