"Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy"
The Revitalization of the Sabbath
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
(A presentation to a lay seminar on the Sabbath, 1959)
In 1951, the Rabbinical Assembly in convention considered the problem, "Revitalization of the Sabbath." In the course of discussion, Rabbi Simon Greenberg remarked "If anything effective is going to be done about it (the revitalization of the Sabbath), it has to be done through the lay group."
I therefore welcome the opportunity to share a rabbi's thoughts on this subject with a group of laymen gathered as a seminar, to draw up not only a blueprint, but perhaps a course of action to make the Sabbath more meaningful to ourselves and to our fellow Jews.
The importance of the Sabbath not only as a day of rest, but as a holy day, does not need too much elaboration. In the scale of values, our sages place the Sabbath above all other holidays. It is even more important than Yom Kippur. They equate the Sabbath to the entire Torah:
Rabbi Simon, son of Pazi, taught in the name of Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi:
"The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, 'Observe the Sabbath. That is
equal to the entire Torah!' "
On the other hand, the violation of the Sabbath is equivalent to a denial of the Divine: Kol ham'chalel et hashabbat k'ilu oved avodah zarah (Whoever violates the Sabbath is compared to one who worships idols).
In our prayers, the Sabbath is characterized as the m'kor hab'rachot, the source of all blessings. Through the Sabbath day of rest, daily labor is dignified. "Six days shall work be done," the Torah commands us. Sheshet yamim ta'aseh m'lacha, uvayom ha-sh'vi'i yihiyeh lachem kodesh Shabbat Shabbaton la'shem. "and the seventh day shall be unto you a holy day." Even in building the sanctuary, the Tabernacle in the desert, the Temple in Jerusalem, or the synagogue in our day -- the Sabbath must remain inviolate.
Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name, Achad Ha-Am (One of the people,) an outstanding Hebrew essayist in the early 1900's and a modern Jewish thinker, writes: "More than Israel preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved Israel." The day of rest that our people shared bound them together into a distinct unit and preserved their spiritual heritage and way of life.
The sages, in elaborating upon the theme of the Sabbath, tell us, "If all Israel would observe two consecutive Sabbaths properly, the Messiah would come!"
In our day, the pattern of Jewish living, the texture of the Jewish tapestry, has been seriously damaged. It is not a matter of diminution, but of complete abolition. Spiritual values have given way to materialistic considerations. The Sabbath has little meaning for our people. We have lost the sense of reverence for the sanctity of the seventh day of the week, and even those who could engage in spiritual pursuits on that day, don't!
This seminar deals with the questions, "How can we restore to good health this deficiency in Jewish life? Can we reconstruct the high spiritual content in our lives? Is it possible to make the Sabbath once again a vital and viable force for ourselves and our children?
We are aware of the economic pressures. We are also cognizant of the personal problems we face. And again to refer to Rabbi Greenberg's remarks at the 1951 Rabbinical Assembly Convention, "We say that no one publicly criticized our statements on the question of riding on the Sabbath. I have been waiting rather for the Jew who would tell me that, because of the Rabbinical Assembly responsa namely, seeking to permit riding to the synagogue on the Sabbath, he started to attend services! That would have been a much more conclusive validation of our action! Eight years later, and you will agree with me that most of our synagogues are still poorly attended Friday nights and Saturday mornings unless some attraction -- a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, confirmation or graduation, etc. -- is offered.
I do not intend to enter into the legal maze brought on by the automation of our homes and the suburbanization of our communities. I believe, however, there are areas in which we can be effective regardless of the circumstances. We CAN make the seventh day holy!
Granted there is no work involved in pressing the button to start the dishwasher or laundromat, or the vacuum cleaner, or even the electric lights. Frankly, there might be no objection from the legal point of view. It becomes a matter of atmosphere in doing or not doing certain labors. Refraining from pressing the button gives a peaceful air to the Sabbath. At Camp Ramah, the ram kol -- the public address system -- is not used from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday in order to not disturb the tranquillity of the day -- Shabbat menucha.
In the discussion regarding the limited lifting of the prohibition against riding on the Sabbath, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser pointed out that the "very immobility leads to the creation of a certain spiritual atmosphere of the day."
Words of wisdom often come from the mouths of babes. A little boy once characterized the Sabbath as follows: "On Shabbos, you are not allowed to cook, because, if you cook, it wouldn't be Shabbos anymore!"
I do not seek to enter here into the legal polemics whether the use of electricity is mutar -- permitted -- or not, or whether the ban against riding on the Sabbath should be lifted, but I would consider how we can best preserve and promote the kedushat Shabbat -- the sanctity of the Sabbath.
Our problem is that the Sabbath has lost its meaning to so many that the "don'ts" don't even occur to us. We have lost our guilt-conscience vis-a-vis the Sabbath. When there is a choice between the synagogue service and the golf course, I need not tell you which is preferred!
I submit for your consideration the following, and I quote from a report by Rabbi Jacob B. Agus at the aforementioned convention, that to create a Sabbath atmosphere required people to avoid all avoidable work on the Sabbath, specifically not to shop, not to cook, and not to do any laundry or cleaning-work on the Sabbath." The Sabbath should not be an occasion for bargain-hunting, and the sanctity of the day should pervade the home because all unnecessary chores usually engaged in during the week are avoided. Jewish merchants through their associations and Chambers of Commerce might arrange that some night other than Friday be designated for late store hours, thus allowing for attendance at religious services.
We might also arrange through our Parent-Teachers Associations in the public schools, particularly in the high schools and also through student organizations, that social affairs do not take place on Friday nights. Jewish boys and girls could be encouraged to select another evening for social pursuits and make Friday "Date-night for Temple."
On the positive side, we could reintroduce the home ceremonies where these have been eliminated, such as lighting the Sabbath candles, reciting the Kiddush, making the Friday night dinner and Sabbath luncheon occasions for formal family get-togethers, and of course, reintroduce the Havdalah at the conclusion of the Sabbath day. We can also arrange our study groups for Sabbath afternoons, and encourage our people to attend worship at our synagogues.
Many years ago, when I was a rabbi in Brooklyn, one dear friend told me that she avoided cooking on the Sabbath. Her family subsisted on salmon, tuna fish, and fried eggs. Whereas she was to be commended for her particular zeal, it is not in keeping with the spirit of the Sabbath. It should be a day when the finest foods are presented to the family, prepared of course before the Sabbath. Friday becomes "Erev Shabbat" -- the labors of that day sweeten the Sabbath hours of rest!
It was related of the venerable sage Shammai, a contemporary of the more popularly known Hillel, that all week he would prepare for the Sabbath. If he would find a luscious morsel, he would put it aside for the Sabbath meal. But if, on the next day, he would find something more appealing, he would eat the first and set aside the other. Thus, all week he would live and plan for the Sabbath! Planning for the Sabbath can inject its holiness into the rest of the week, giving spiritual pleasure to our everyday labors.
Professor Heschel writes, "The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but a climax of living" (From "The Sabbath: Holiness in Time").
We can make our homes sanctuaries, in which the spirit of the Sabbath will reside. It is told in Jewish folklore that a "Poretz" (nobleman) visited a Jew on the Sabbath and tasted his cholent. He liked it so much that he ordered his chef to obtain the recipe and prepare it for him. Somehow, it didn't taste the same. The Poretz called the Jew and the chef to find out what was missing. He checked the ingredients, the procedure; he found that it was watched carefully as it simmered overnight in the oven. "Wherein did they fail,?" he asked the Jew. Typically, the Jew countered with a question: "When did you prepare it?" "Tuesday, for the Wednesday luncheon," the chef replied. "That's it!" the Jew pointed out, "the Shabbos ingredient is missing!"
Those of us who had the privilege of visiting Israel recall the Friday afternoons with nostalgia. As the sun passed the noon hour, there was a feeling that Shabbat was coming. Storekeepers were busily preparing to lower their shutters, workmen were hurrying home from work carrying flowers to beautify the Sabbath table and also as an expression of affection for their spouses; children scurried about, and as the afternoon waned, they emerged from their homes scrubbed and cleaned, very careful not to soil their Sabbath clothes. As the sun reached the horizon, fathers accompanied by their children hurried to the synagogues for the Kabbalat Shabbat -- the reception of the Sabbath. Candles flickered in the homes as the passersby peeked through the windows. With the last rays of the sun, a mantle of Sabbath peace descended upon the busy street. Even those who did not engage in the religious disciplines could not escape the tranquility of the Sabbath day. They might smoke or drive their cars, but even that is done as oneg shabbat -- for the pleasure of the Sabbath. The hustle and bustle were stilled, the raucous noises hushed -- it was Shabbat!
The layman, perhaps better than the rabbi, can implement a program to restore the Sabbath to its rightful place. Even those who, by force of circumstance, must labor, can still find ways of distinguishing that day from any other day: The least they can do is refrain from smoking. It is related of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, an eighteenth century pietist, that he noticed a young Jewish salesman keeping a ledger and writing his notations in it on the Sabbath. Rabbi Salanter rebuked him, "Why do you write on the Sabbath?" The young man apologized, "I am a traveling salesman, and I have to keep a diary in order to report on my activities: as to what I see, what I am going to buy, what I am going to sell. I must do this every day, including the day of Sabbath." Thereupon, Rabbi Salanter worked out a form for him whereby, instead of having to write a thousand words on the Sabbath, he would have to write only ten; on Saturday night, he would be able to fill in the rest!
We cannot, of course, attain the complete Shabbat Kodesh and Shabbat Menuchah in our environment. But I submit to you: Can't we recapture some of the spirit, and inject it into our homes and our lives? Note that I did not stress attendance at services, as a colleague of mine had done recently. That, I believe, is a concomitant factor in the larger picture of making the Sabbath more meaningful in your life and in mine!