Remembering the Sabbath

Judith Shulevitz brings up the idea that raising your consciousness of the value of Shabbat is important whether or not you actually keep it.

shabbat hala_311 (photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
shabbat hala_311
(photo credit: Detroit Free Press/MCT)
‘Keeping the Sabbath, I felt, would be good for me. It would force me to grow up and take my place among the generations. It would charge my domestic middle-aged life with drama and significance, whereas now it felt drained and resigned. But in order for this to happen I would have to stop feeling so ambivalent about the day.”
So writes former New York Times and Slate columnist and literary critic Judith Shulevitz. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is her ambitious attempt to resolve her ambivalence by combining an encyclopedic history of the seventh day with a spiritual autobiography.
Shulevitz casts a wide net in her research, making the book more appropriate for the general reader by including historical and international Sabbath observance. There are chapters about Christian Sabbath observers in 17th-century Transylvania and the Puritans Sabbath approach as it has impacted America. The old American “blue laws” preventing commerce got their name, according to Shulevitz, either because they were written on blue paper or because blue meant rigidly moral in 18th-century slang.
Nonetheless, the heart of the book is her exploration of the Sabbath as it is observed by Jews and how that dovetails with her personal exploration as a Jewish woman. She hails the many of the virtues of Shabbat: It promotes social solidarity, it legislates morality of time, it turns the ordinary into the singular, it’s an organizing principle, an antidote to workaholism, and it provides the sublime sense of rightness that comes from following divine commandments. A political institution, the Sabbath makes the radically egalitarian claim that everyone – men, women, children, stranger and animals – has the right not to work.
“How can Jews bear to obey all these laws? Well, why does any society adhere to its customs? These rituals make sense to Jews because being members of their community means being committed to making sense of them. The Law – Torah – is the language Jews use to speak to one another. It is a Jew’s commitment to the ongoing process of Law, of studying and interpreting and reinterpreting – and following – the laws, that brings out the aspect of the Law that is world-creating, rather than soul-stifling. Besides, the Law is said to make God’s will manifest, and following it is not thought to be a burden (though it may be experienced as such) but the chance to make God’s transcendental goodness a reality on earth.”
But for all of her investigation, observation and original thinking, where The Sabbath World is most disappointing is that Shulevitz never falls in love with her subject. This isn’t a question of whether or not she becomes fully observant and embraces Shabbat as an Orthodox Jew (and this reader) does. Indeed, Shulevitz brings forth the intriguing idea that raising your consciousness of the value of Shabbat – remembering it so to speak – is important whether or not you actually keep it.
But her descriptions of her personal Shabbatot are among the least appealing in modern literature. From the beginning, she invests her Shabbat in Puerto Rico with repulsion. Her mother insisting on making kiddush despite the boredom and hostility of her husband and children.
Listen to how she describes San Juan’s Conservative synagogue where many refugees from other lands have gathered. “These old men and occasional women smelled funny, and sang funny, too. My siblings and I referred to one of them as the ‘foghorn.’ The building, a ruined mansion starting to crumble, smelled of wood rot. It had termites. The specks of wood they had chewed and shat out would fall from the tops of the prayer books in a fine spray of golden dust when you pulled them off their shelves.”
When Shulevitz was an undergraduate at Yale, she broke up with a Sabbath-observing grad student after spending a single Shabbat in a religious household – not much of a recommendation. As an adult, she discovers that she’s bored at the communal Shabbat meals with her friends at synagogue. Although she acknowledges the possibility of sweetness of a Shabbat in Jerusalem, her experience is sour when she somehow finds herself with two sick children and no food to eat in a city with no shortage of sumptuous smorgasbords.
When she describes religious practice, her language is always teetering on the offensive. Only Shabbat at a Jewish sleep-away camp gets average marks.
I kept waiting for to find one Shabbat model that thrilled her. This doesn’t have to be a life-changing epiphany.
After all her investigation, Shulevitz’s steadiest expression of Shabbat is drinking a glass of red wine on Friday evening. If she and her husband come home on time, they prepare a lavish Friday night dinner with ritual handwashing and blessing their children. Or not. The kids’ soccer practice is already crowding out synagogue participation. Says Shulevitz, “I feel guilty about not building better fences around the day but apparently not guilty enough. Partly, it’s because each step up in observance paralyzes me with indecision.”
What Shulevitz is missing isn’t so much a step up – non- Orthodox Jews can have delightful Shabbat observance – but oneg Shabbat, the pleasure of Shabbat. In a popular talmudic story, the Roman emperor tastes Shabbat cooking and insists that his chefs procure the recipe for this remarkable food from Rabbanit Ben Chananya. When the royal chefs fail to reproduce the repast, the emperor complains that a essential ingredient has been omitted. Indeed. The spice called Shabbat is absent. So it is with The Sabbath World – a royal meal with extraordinary ingredients, but lacking the distinctive spice that makes the flavor memorable.