Keeping Shabbat is the key to achieving Jewish nirvana, new book says

South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s book challenges readers to observe Shabbat.

 Shabbat (Illustrative). (photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
Shabbat (Illustrative).
(photo credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

“More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people” goes the adage. Most people who have experienced the peace that comes from packing away endlessly appearing platters of good food, catching up on sleep, and mellowing with family without Wi-Fi distractions will agree that the seventh day is restorative and fun, even if not everyone is hit with holy transcendence. 

Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa and initiator of the global Shabbat Project, goes one step further. Keeping Shabbat, he claims, is a chance for individuals to renew themselves and fly – spiritually, creatively, emotionally. Tuning out from the material world for 25 hours a week, he contends, is a stairway to happiness, as well as heaven. 

His new book, Shabbat. A Day To Create Yourself: Building character, shaping perspectives, and finding happiness through Shabbat, is a step-by-step blueprint to achieving Jewish nirvana. The comprehensive guide covers various foundations of the Sabbath day and examines how observing it affects character, perspectives, and happiness. In fact, writes Goldstein, the day’s holiness impacts positively on every aspect of life.

A guide to Jewish nirvana through observing Shabbat

The chapter on “Trusting” posits that Shabbat reinforces how God carries us. “Faith in God, a foundational mitzvah, is brought into focus on Shabbat. We acknowledge God as the Creator of our world, who took us out of Egypt and guides our destiny.” 

“Faith in God, a foundational mitzvah, is brought into focus on Shabbat. We acknowledge God as the Creator of our world, who took us out of Egypt and guides our destiny.”

Warren Goldstein

Keeping Shabbat, he says, helps us “transform faith from an intellectual understanding that God is in control, into trust, a feeling of security and confidence.”

 South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. (credit: Jason Crouse Photography) South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. (credit: Jason Crouse Photography)

Furthermore, he adds, setting aside our natural anxiety about making money for a whole 25 hours reinforces our trust in God; we recognize that “although we do our best to earn a living during the week, ultimately whatever we earn is by the blessings of God, who is the source of everything in our lives.” 

Rabbi Goldstein lives in Johannesburg where, no doubt, his congregants all do their best to earn a living six days out of seven. Call me cynical, or blame living for too long in the Jewish state, but I could not read this book without thinking of the hugely stringent section of society in Israel who scrupulously keep Shabbat but actually don’t need a break from pecuniary preoccupations. Tens of thousands of Haredim never ever worry about earning money; Shabbat is just more of the same. 

I guess this book is very uplifting to the pious, and I can see that it would serve as an excellent road map, especially for the newly observant setting off on their path. The chapter entitled “Gentle,” for instance, extols Shabbat as a time of love and peace and togetherness; conflict is banished, and the light of the sacred candles rekindles intimate connections with those we love.

A well-nigh magic recipe for a perfect world. Yet, in the imperfect spot at its epicenter, I look at the men and women who are steering our country – mostly men; the religious parties aren’t crash-hot on women – and I don’t see a plethora of souls made gentle by softly burnished Shabbat lights. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have probably been transforming themselves into better people for every Saturday of their lives. Has Shabbat cultivated humility in them and their followers, filling them with the recognition that no one is superior to others, as “we are all equal, created in God’s image”? I don’t think so.

A stroll through the 287-page hardcover book suggests that not switching on cellphones or lights or ovens or cars or computers for 24 hours plus one furnishes the faithful with courage, strength and hope, as well as optimism of a World to Come where “there will be ultimate reward for the righteous and all the pain of this world will be righted.” 

It sounds so easy. 

But, what can I do, questions keep popping up in my head that’s still attached to a corporeal (if aging) body right here in this world before I fly, hopefully, to the next. What is “righteous”? Is it connected to not tearing toilet paper from sundown to sundown the following day? Can one evade the army, increasing the load on fellow citizens, and still count oneself among the “righteous” of Zion? Can you be jailed for fraud and embezzlement, get out and promptly be indicted again, and still be righteous enough to serve as the head of a religious, God-fearing political party on the merits of debating whether peeling a grape is halachicly sanctioned on the Sabbath? Are soldiers who spend years of their lives protecting God’s country – if they don’t die young in battle – not “righteous” if they surf on their Shabbos break from battling in the West Bank? Will they be barred from the ultimate reward?

It’s confusing, right?

The book follows a formula: Each chapter contains an attribute and a few biblical/ Talmudic quotes and examines their connection with Shabbat and enhanced happiness. “Growing,” for example, demonstrates how observing the day nurtures a growth mindset by reconnecting us to the source of all human development – the divine soul within. The spiritual energy of Shabbat, we learn, gifts us with an “extra soul” – thus we smell spices at day’s end to acknowledge the loss of this additional soulfulness; we revive our spirit with the invigorating aroma of Havdalah spices. 

On Shabbat, we return to our roots, we become more generous, wiser, and more idealistic. Its transcendence shapes our perspectives, reminds us that our creator cares and is holding it all together. Goldstein harnesses midrashim, Kabbalistic mysticism, and commentaries to prove how Shabbat is foundational to Jewish life and connects us to God and people. It builds happy families and community; it teaches life lessons and paths to personal happiness.

That’s as may be, but according to the South African Jewish Report, Rabbi Goldstein has been instrumental, together with the South African beit din, in barring all Orthodox rabbis (and their wives) from participating in any South African limud; the only country where such a ban exists. Although he initiated the global Shabbat Project that urges all Jews to observe Shabbat once a year, he himself boycotts the country’s biggest Shabbat gathering because Conservative and Reform Jews attend. Is his claim that Shabbat is our eternal soul mate only for the Orthodox? 

Goldstein states that Shabbat helped us endure despite losing our land, Jerusalem, and our Temple; yet he does not in the slightest acknowledge the inevitable challenges of sticking to the rules. Nowhere in the book is it noted that for women (usually), Shabbat planning can start on Monday: menus, shopping, cooking, preparing for guests. Nowhere is the sometimes divisive strains on families discussed – when, say, one newly observant branch won’t drive to another for Friday nights. 

As I grow older, nothing seems so easy anymore – not even reaching the next world through the sublimity of Shabbat. But if you’re searching for spirituality and a survey of foundational texts, this is your book!  ■