We are on the eve of an historic moment for the South African Jewish community.
Under the banner of The Shabbos Project, thousands upon thousands of Jews
throughout the country are preparing to keep this Shabbat, from sundown to stars
out, in all of its halachic detail and splendor.
The breadth and depth of
support for The Shabbos Project has been quite astonishing. There has been an
outpouring of positive, enthusiastic responses across the entire spectrum of the
South African Jews of all ages, from all walks of life, across
all levels of Jewish observance and involvement, have joined hands to keep
Shabbat together – most for the very first time in their lives.
and energetic social movement has sprung up in a matter of weeks, as more and
more people have spontaneously come forward to take ownership of the initiative
and make The Shabbos Project come alive. There are a group of people living in
Oaklands, Johannesburg, who have decided to create an outdoor Friday night
Shabbat dinner; they are closing off a number of roads and have invited everyone
in the area to join them. More than 600 have booked to take part in this
enchanting dinner under the stars.
Another family will be hosting a high
school reunion with a difference; around 50 former classmates will gather as
guests in their home to keep Shabbat together. Student leadership bodies from
South Africa’s biggest Jewish day schools have volunteered as ambassadors for
The Shabbos Project, creating promotional videos and actively campaigning for
Perhaps most remarkable of all has been “The Great Street
Challah Bake” – an event which saw more than 2,000 women take to the streets of
Johannesburg on Thursday evening to make challot and say the appropriate
blessing, in preparation for, and in honor of, the big Shabbat.
far from isolated examples.
Inspiring stories are still pouring in of
people keeping Shabbat for the very first time, of families uniting and
reuniting, of communities coming together, of people going door-to-door to
invite the Jewish residents of their streets into their homes.
The Shabbos Project aroused such a massive, far-reaching public response from so
many thousands of people? Why has the response been so powerful and so positive?
Among the multifaceted reasons for this social phenomenon, one, I think, is that
Shabbat has a particular power and resonance for our times. It brings people
together in an age of fragmentation and alienation; in particular, Shabbat holds
Jewish families together in a society where everything seems to be pulling us
Modern life has become fragmented; we are constantly dragged in
different directions by distractions, demands and onerous responsibilities that
pile up with increasing speed. We are dealing with lightning-paced, ubiquitous
communication channels, our attentions overwhelmed by the cacophony around us
while our lives buckle under the strain.
And it’s not just communication,
but the entire set-up of our modern world.
Families struggle to find time
to sit down to a meal together and just talk and be together. We seldom get the
chance to “be there” – all there, all at once.
Into a world of
fragmentation, Shabbat enters to offers us that chance. On Shabbat, we set aside
time to revisit and reinvigorate our most important relationships – with G-d,
with our families, with our friends and with ourselves. It is a nurturing and
inspiring haven of love and connectedness in a turbulent world, creating a
wonderful, warm, loving atmosphere at the center of our lives, which is
Of course, there is the good food, sound sleep and
deep relaxation we look forward to, but there’s more. Shabbat restores us, not
just in a physical sense, but emotionally and spiritually as well, so that we
emerge on Saturday night as new human beings ready to face the week with all of
its challenges and opportunities.
And yet, on the eve of this historic
Shabbat, as momentum builds, and South African Jews ride an unprecedented wave
of inspiring energy, one senses that there is something else, perhaps deeper and
more profound, that in some way explains what is happening. You know that
feeling when you have been away from someone whom you really love and know well
– an old friend or relative whom you haven’t seen for a long time – and with
whom you are then reunited? At that moment of reunion, an amazing emotion is
generated which touches both of you in a way that is so profound and moving; an
intimacy is reestablished in an instant, and it is as if you had never been
There endures a deep and loving friendship between the Jewish
people and Shabbat, a friendship that is deeply embedded in our national psyche.
This emotional connection to Shabbat is reflected in the words of an ancient
song traditionally sung on Friday night. “Ma yedidut menuchatech” – “How beloved
a friend is your rest!” The Shabbos Project is helping South African Jewry
rekindle that friendship, reacquainting us with the precious gift we first
received from our Creator, millennia ago.
The remarkable outpouring of
energy, love and emotion seen in South Africa in the weeks and days leading up
to this Shabbat is, I believe, simply an instinctive response; it is driven by
the heightened sense of anticipation we all feel ahead of an emotional reunion
with a trusted old friend; a friend who has brought joy and comfort, strength
and inspiration, faith and renewal, to our people throughout the ages; a
G-d-given friend who is an indelible part of our heritage, and an invaluable
gift for our times.
The Shabbos Project is a watershed moment for South
African Jewry. From what we’ve already witnessed, it may point the way forward
as a model for Jews around the world. Shabbat’s message is powerful and
transformative, the practical difference it can make to individuals and
With its obvious, universal appeal, Shabbat
can be a force for unity, bringing all kinds of Jews together, directing us
towards a vibrant Jewish future.
The writer is chief rabbi of South