Erev Shabbat

'We have been successful in saving the Shabbat in America but not erev Shabbat.'

Friday afternoon is a special time here in Jerusalem. Vehicular traffic is sparse and people rush to the stores for their last-minute Shabbat needs. But there is a general mood of relaxed anticipation. Erev Shabbat plays an important role in the Shabbat mood. I remember from my days in the United States when we Shabbat observers poured into the synagogue for the Friday night services, still tense and nerve-racked from the traffic driving home from our workplaces, and often only arriving before Shabbat by the skin of our teeth. It took hours to get our bodies, minds and souls into the Shabbat mode. The late great rabbi Ya'acov Kaminetzky once told me in his inimitable talent for saying everything in a few words: "We have been successful in saving the Shabbat in America but not erev Shabbat." One of the great pluses that I have found for myself in living in Jerusalem is erev Shabbat. I am engaged in Shabbat from the early morning of Friday until it finally arrives. And when Shabbat makes its holy entrance into my life I am calm, almost serene, in being able to welcome it and absorb it into my being. I am struck by the hush that precedes its entrance, even in a neighborhood such as mine where there are main traffic arteries that operate on Shabbat and fine neighbors who are not necessarily complete Shabbat observers. Shabbat here is very special. But so is erev Shabbat. The Talmud records for us that many of the great rabbis and scholars of the time were personally involved in preparing their houses, tables and meals for Shabbat. From setting the table to curing the salted fish to sweeping the floors, all of these were considered to be noble and important activities in readying the home and one's self for the arrival of Shabbat. Though I am neither great nor overly scholarly, I am in charge of setting the table and supervising the Shabbat food cooking in our oven. The latter is done surreptitiously, since that is really my wife's domain, and exclusivity of division of labor is a wise course for a successful marriage relationship. Nevertheless, this allows me to tell guests at our Shabbat table that the food was prepared under strict rabbinical supervision. Jewish tradition also prescribes that the husband should prepare the candles that his wife will later light in welcoming the Shabbat to their home. I find this to be an act of affection to my wife and to the Shabbat itself. The custom is that the husband actually lights the candles to make certain that the wicks are in proper order and then extinguishes them until they are lit for Shabbat. It is the small things in life and home that build the great relationship. Judaism does not recognize anything as being a small thing - and certainly not the necessity for preparing the home and one's self for Shabbat. The Talmud uses the relationship of erev Shabbat and Shabbat itself as a metaphor for life. It states: "One who toils on erev Shabbat will eat well on Shabbat." This is not only valid in a literal sense, but it reflects the Jewish attitude toward life and living in a general sense. Enjoying success - Shabbat - in any endeavor, educational, commercial or personal, is always conditioned on toiling beforehand - erev Shabbat. The rabbis in Avot stated: "According to the effort and pain is the reward and payment." Judaism posits no free lunch to anyone. It is erev Shabbat that alone creates the Shabbat in all of its grandeur, simplicity and serenity. The fact that Friday afternoons are already times of business closings and home preparations contributes greatly to this erev Shabbat atmosphere. No matter how different Jews have attempted to have a Jewish life without a traditional and observant Shabbat, it is now abundantly clear that the Shabbat remains the cornerstone of Jewish life and continuity. The famous slogan that "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept and preserved the Jews" has never been more true and telling than in our time. When all of the ideologies that were supposed to redeem us from our troubles have visibly and miserably failed, the Shabbat remains a beacon of light and hope for Israel and a symbol of our eternal covenant with our creator. And therefore, that is what makes the erev Shabbat so vital for our society as well. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.