Why a Sabbath?
I was born into a secular family. I never learned any prayers. I did not learn any of the rituals of the Jewish religion. But, I was intrigued and willing to do the best I could to join my “tribe,” wherever in the world they may be.
Today, I have been thinking about the Sabbath, about the Friday evening dinner, about the prayer before the meal. I arrived at some insights I want to share with you.
What is the prayer all about? What is the Sabbath all about?
It is about showing gratitude, about taking time to integrate and express our love for each other and to the world.
All week long, we work. We struggle. We have conflicts. But for one day, one day, we stop. We show gratitude to God and to each other. And we integrate ourselves, the family, and the community.
On the Sabbath day, we integrate ourselves first by stopping work. We make the time to reflect, to pay attention. We do not drive, which means we stay around the home for the family. We do not cook, so the lady of the house also can rest and integrate.
It is this rest that distinguishes us from all other living things. Trees do not differentiate between one day and another. Neither do animals. We do—that is what makes us human. Humans are conscious. They can distinguish between the secular and the holy. Through self-discipline. By being conscious. We thank God for making us different from all other animals, for making us human.
The Friday evening prayer is a thank you to God for showing us how to act, like all good leaders should, by example: God created the world in six days and, on the seventh day, rested. God is endlessly powerful. Does God need to rest? God was offering a personal example for us to follow. He was inviting us to take a rest.
If you analyze the prayer, what does it really express in many different ways? Gratitude.
We thank God for showing us the way to be human. We thank God for a creation that produces the bread that feeds us. For leading us out of slavery in Egypt, for making us free people. The prayer sang at the end of the meal is full of gratitude for God feeding not only us, but all the people in the world without expecting anything in return. The prayer is, “ha zan et ha olam kulo be hen be hesed u ve rahamim.”
But, in that prayer is more than a demonstration of gratitude. The gratitude is accompanied by a ritual of integration. We bless a glass of wine and all at the table share the glass. We share. The head of the table carves pieces of the special bread, the challah, and shares it with all the people around the table.
So, the Sabbath is not just a day of rest. It is a day of integration and showing gratitude.
On Friday evening, the whole family gets together around the table. Before anything else, the father sings a song of praise to his wife in front of the whole family, appreciating her for who she is. There are two words that describe her values: she is “ezer ke neged,” which means “helpful against.”
This is kind of strange, is it not? How can she be helpful if she is against? Well, think about it. Do you realize that when you lean on something, it is working against you? If it did not push back, you would fall. Her advice and her wisdom support, can be leaned upon. So, we listen to the wife. We respect her. We acknowledge her. We appreciate her.
In the Sephardic tradition, the father says, “Bendichas manos,” which means, “Blessed are the hands that prepared our meal.” The mother responds, “Bendichas bokas,” which means, “Blessed are the mouths that will eat it.”
What do you hear here? Again, and again, gratitude. Appreciation. Respect. The father and the mother walk around the table, put their hand on the heads of each of the children, and bless them. In the Sephardic tradition, the children, regardless of age, kiss the father’s hand, the hand that fed them. Then, he goes to his wife and kisses her.
Do you see the respect? The expression of love? The integration?
If you go to the synagogue on Friday evening and listen to the prayers, you will hear that they all share a common denominator: gratitude. They thank God for keeping us healthy, for healing the sick, for freeing the prisoners, for freeing us from slavery. At the end of the prayers, people hug each other, shake hands, and say, “Shabbat Shalom.”
“Shalom” comes from the word “shalem,” which means “whole.” What is whole if not fully integrated? The word “shalom” means peace, and there is no peace unless you are integrated. “Peace,” meaning no more wars. No more fights. No more conflict. Peace.
On the Sabbath, the whole family goes to synagogue. You can see the father walking—not driving, but walking—to the synagogue, holding the hands of his children. In the synagogue, the whole community becomes integrated.
Because one walks to the house of prayer on the Sabbath, Jewish people often live in proximity to their synagogue. That, to me, is community building. They know each other. They bless each other.
Ahad Ha’am, a Jewish author, said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The Sabbath has kept the Jewish people together, integrated.
A day to show gratitude, to integrate, and to express love is all that is needed to have peace. And what more can we wish for?
Peace to us all,
Ichak Kalderon Adizes