It’s Shabbat morning, and when I go to use the bathroom, the light is off. I look at the switch carefully, maybe too carefully, to determine if it’s really in the off position, or the light has burned out. I flip the switch, momentarily flinching, believing I’m going to be struck down by God for my transgression.
Nothing happens, neither to me nor the lightbulb: it’s burned out.
“Great,” I think. I’m sure that if on Shabbat we could just turn off the light when no one was in there, as opposed to the countless times we’ve left it on for 25 hours – maintaining a continuous consumption of fossil fuels so that we don’t have to pee in the dark – the bulb might have lasted a couple more days. But by abstaining from physically turning the switch on and off, we’re praising God and keeping this day holy.
(In truth, buying a nightlight can solve the problem, but living with roommates, we’d rather split the monthly electric bill than take initiative.) I live with three religious girls; the number is important because each girl thinks the other is more religious than her. It’s Friday night and I go to take a sponge to clean some dishes, “Wait, do you not want me to?” I turn to Alef. “It’s fine with me, but you should check with Bet if it’s OK,” she says cautiously. Actually, I’ve seen Bet wash dishes all the time with a sponge on Shabbat.
I go to put a tablecloth on the table before the meal.
“Oh, you’re going to use that one?” Bet asks. “Gimmel uses that one for dairy meals, not meat,” she adds, disapproval and nervousness overtaking her tone rather than offering helpful insight.
The goal of utmost importance is keeping the house kosher, which is what I have come to understand when I’ve relinquished my right to turn on the dud to have a hot shower. I know it’s not fair that if I boil water, there is the threat that one of my roommates will use that boiled water. But then what of that cold January night, as friends are getting ready to come to our house for a meal, when the dining room is an icebox but the Shabbat candles have already been lit? The room is empty, and I snuggle down deeper under my blanket. I look up and Bet stands there with a blank stare, a space heater burning next to her where none was before.
It’s hard for me to know what’s what in Jerusalem because expectations keep changing. While some houses don’t rip paper on Shabbat, others find the perforated edges as an invitation to tear, God willing. At some meals, kiddush is an afterthought while in other homes, the thought of drinking or breaking bread without the requisite prayers is blasphemy of the highest degree.
I can understand how certain commandments can hold higher importance to certain people, and it is important for people to have their own understanding and peace with God.
But how am I supposed to understand what is most important to each person, when what is important to me isn’t even up for discussion? Housing in Jerusalem is hard to come by, so as someone secular, I have had to adjust my expectations. I’ve learned to separate my meat and dairy, though I’ve slipped up and used one dish with the wrong utensil and had to come clean to all three roommates.
Sometimes I have difficulty when, with the most delectable chocolate croissant in hand, I want to use the meat oven because it’s better, but I don’t know if my pastry is dairy or parve; just the fact that we have two ovens, two sinks and two almost- complete sets of cooking utensils seems like a huge waste of money.
Yet, I’ve grown to appreciate the sanctity of the day. If anything has helped me fall in love with Jerusalem, it’s Shabbat.
When I first moved here and had no friends, the first meal I went to was one which I had been invited to with open arms. At that point, I understood very little about the commandments and customs of Shabbat.
I knew there was Friday night dinner, but I had no idea about Saturday lunch. What a waste of money, I thought, as my host pulled out dish upon dish upon dish to serve to his guests. What’s the pay off? It seems like a rip-off.
And of course, the pay-off is great.
Every Friday night and Saturday afternoon, friends gather around a table for good food, challenging conversation and joyous singing. Its really one of the most meaningful things, which I am grateful to be part of.
When I went back to New York for a vacation, I met up with my girlfriends for brunch on Saturday. Afterward, we went back to an apartment and drank some more wine and played board games. No TV, no cell phones, we just wanted to talk. “This is what Shabbat’s about,” I told them, getting friends together, removing distractions and enjoying each other’s company.
But if I want a hot drink, let me boil some water. If I want my food hot, let me use the microwave. There is a virtue in buying and preparing everything beforehand, but if I forget to set the timer on the hot plate, or forget to plug in the urn, allow me the ease of modern technology.
A light is on in a room no one is in. What is the big deal if I turn it off when I’m not using it, and turning it on when I am? “One likes to think the religious pay-off is bigger than the momentary, physical pay-off,” a religious friend once said to me. I really can’t understand God becoming so irate that a light switch was turned on and off for the sake of conservation.
The core of Shabbat is rest, reflection and learning. The goal is to get rid of distractions, and to be more present in the moment. We gather family and friends for a meal, taking time to connect in a way we might not have been able to throughout the week. We study the Torah portion, reflecting the reason why we mark Shabbat. It’s one of my favorite times of the week, because it’s socializing with a deeper meaning.
Come Friday afternoon I’m scrambling to see where all my friends will be, knowing this is the best opportunity to spend time with them.
But when the meaning of Shabbat gets lost in the laws, in what we can’t do, in finding the loopholes to keep the creature comforts of our workweek without lifting a finger, this is where I have a problem. It takes away from the benefits when we become judgmental and hurt when others don’t respect what we want or need. While Shabbat is meant to keep the Jewish people together, I feel it tears us apart in some ways.
The most important thing to remember, from my perspective is to appreciate having that time – and enjoying it in the most positive way.
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