Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.