The unifying role of Shabbat

Ahad Ha’am’s observation that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews” continues to be relevant today.

October 24, 2013 21:40
2 minute read.
Jewish woman lights the Shabbat candles

Jewish woman lights the Shabbat candles 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)


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Tonight, thousands of observant and nonobservant families will join together to share a Shabbat experience, which will hopefully begin a joint search for a common language to address the Judaism that is our common heritage.

Shabbat Yisraelit, which is the name of this initiative sponsored by Beit Hillel – Attentive Spiritual Leadership, seeks to underscore the fact that Shabbat belongs to all Jews and that, rather than dividing them, Shabbat can and should serve to build stronger bonds that will bring Jews closer to one other.

That is the message that I learned from my parents growing up in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. I saw firsthand how my parents used the Shabbat meal to maintain family ties and friendships and to stress commonalities.

This is the message that my wife and I have sought to impart to our children and grandchildren.

My parents understood the unifying power of Shabbat. In the first instance, it kept our immediate family together.

Shabbat was a day for catching up on the past week’s events and especially what my sister and I had learned that week in day school.

We all went our different ways during the week, but on Shabbat the family came together around the Shabbat table.

Shabbat also kept the links open between our immediate family and our relatives and friends, most of whom were not observant. My parents would invite them for a Shabbat meal and they would gladly accept.

For many of our family members and guests, this was their only Jewish experience. The conversation around our table was nonjudgmental and emphasized what bound us.

The Shabbat table was the great unifier.

Finally, Shabbat helped expand our circle of friends.

Living in the middle of Manhattan, my father was always bringing home strangers that he would inevitably find at Shabbat services.

My parents maintained close ties with many of these “guests”– some of whom were young Israelis who had come to New York to complete their advanced degrees – who had first come unannounced for a Shabbat meal.

It is because of the importance that we attach to the unifying role of Shabbat that our family has sponsored for a number of years “Shabbat Across Maryland” (SHABAM), organized by the Hillel at the University of Maryland.

The goal of the initiative, which provides a Shabbat experience to over 1,000 students in over 100 locations around the sprawling campus, is to create a warm, intimate Shabbat experience, however defined. And that is just right.

So, too, do we support Shabbat Yisraelit and other Beit Hillel initiatives here in Israel that emphasize what brings us together rather than what tears us apart.

Ahad Ha’am’s observation that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews” continues to be as relevant today – here in Israel – as it was in the Diaspora of his day.

Jacques J. Gorlin is a member of the board of directors of Beit Hillel – Attentive Spiritual Leadership and resides in Jerusalem.

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