Coronavirus has brought new appreciation for Shabbat – opinion

Many of these experiences have been traumatic, unsettling, and just plain unpleasant. But in the midst of this there have also been moments of beauty and tranquility.

A JEWISH FAMILY gathers after lighting Shabbat candles. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO/MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)
A JEWISH FAMILY gathers after lighting Shabbat candles.
In some ways the year 2020 has been a grand, global lifestyle experiment. During lockdown in particular we have experienced a completely different way of living: no traveling, no outings, no dining out, no social gatherings, no events, no public celebrations, working from home, schooling our children from home, only leaving home for basic necessities, keeping our distance from others, wearing masks, and experiencing fear and uncertainty in every chance encounter with another person.
Many of these experiences have been traumatic, unsettling, and just plain unpleasant. But in the midst of this there have also been moments of beauty and tranquility.
As we have slowed down the pace of life, it has brought our lives into focus. We have become more focused on our homes, and on our relationships with those closest to us. We’ve learned to focus on life’s simple joys and pleasures without all the distractions and noise of “normal life.” Life has become simpler, more contained, and the slower pace has allowed us to direct our gaze inward.
With the world in turmoil, our homes have become havens; places of safety and peace, where we can seek refuge from the turbulence outside.
One of the great joys that has emerged from this time is the nurturing of our most precious relationships. In today’s world, we are busier than we’ve ever been. Bombarded by constant information and stimulation, bound to airtight schedules, we are left with no energy, no head-space, no time for those relationships that are, in fact, the most important thing in our lives.
Too often we become distracted by our devices, by the demands of our work, by the sheer complexity and overwhelming nature of life itself, so that we don’t devote enough time to our loved ones. We neglect our relationships with our spouse and our children, but also with God, and even with ourselves, with who we are deep down.
Even amid all the suffering and pain and devastation from the past year, COVID-19 changed those things for the better.
If we could emerge from this often-dreadful experiment with a brand-new lifestyle – one that incorporates the best of what we have been through and discards the worst – wouldn’t that be an amazing gift? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was something that could help us live better, incorporating all that we’ve learned and all the positive experiences we’ve had over this difficult time? Something that slows down the pace of life enabling us to focus on what’s truly important, on the people who matter most to us?
We have such a thing. We experience it every week. It’s called Shabbat.
Once a week, Shabbat slows everything down. It slows us down, to “the pace of life.” On Shabbat, the frenzy ceases and our lives come into focus, to savor life in its beautiful simplicity, which we can only do when we slow things down.
There’s an amazing passage in the Talmud that says when we rush around during the week, we lose part of our eyesight, which is then restored when we say kiddush on Friday night and gaze at the Shabbat candles. Obviously, it’s not that our physical eyesight is impaired and then restored. It’s that when we slow things down, we can see things more clearly, we have more perspective on our lives, we notice the people around us, and we are able to truly connect to them in the most profound way. We are also able to reconnect with ourselves and our deepest thoughts and feelings, and with God. On Shabbat, we are able to truly appreciate life.
THE BEAUTY of Shabbat – and this is also something we have experienced during the coronavirus crisis – is that it allows us to savor life’s basic pleasures; the simple joys of hearty eating and sound sleeping, of nice clothes and good company, of walking and talking and connecting. We can only fully appreciate these when we slow things down.
The restrictions of the day liberate us to appreciate life. Switching off our devices, setting aside our work, leaving the car in the garage; these are all remarkably effective ways of slowing down the pace of life so that we can breathe and feel and connect. Ultimately, it is our total immersion in the experience that allows us to access all of the joys and gifts that Shabbat has to offer.
On Shabbat, we can fully enjoy the sip of wine at kiddush, the aroma of challah, the smile on our child’s face when we give them a blessing, the look in a mother’s eye as she lights the Shabbat candles with her daughter, the sheer indulgence of a Shabbat afternoon sleep. These are the simple pleasures that make life beautiful.
We tend to over-complicate things, rushing around in pursuit of pleasures and experiences which are much more complicated but far less fulfilling. We are looking for leisure, for forms of entertainment, for something out there that can fill us and sustain us instead of something inside. The joys of life are woven into it. Seeing the blossoms coming out in spring or feeling the new warmth of the air need no chasing. And on Shabbat, when we have the time and space to fully engage with these simple pleasures, when our senses are fully attuned to them, they are even more pleasurable. That, in turn, fills us with a deep wellspring of appreciation and gratitude.
Learning to access those simple pleasures, that deep inner joy, is something we’ve learned to do over this past year. We have discovered that there are many joys to be had in a slower, simpler life. We can’t live like that all the time, but once a week, on Shabbat, we can, and it can be truly life-changing.
On November 6-7, the Shabbat Project will again be happening in more than 1,500 cities and 109 countries around the world. Every year this project brings together Jews of all ages and backgrounds and nationalities to keep one Shabbat together. This year the call of the project is to “Bring Shabbat Home.” With the coronavirus continuing to upend daily life, we are pivoting from the big city-wide events to a more intimate home-based experience.
It’s an opportunity for all of us to keep a full Shabbat, together. Now, while we’re looking back on the past year and looking forward to a brand new one, is our chance to seize this Divine gift, and through it, in the year ahead, to find a new and better way to live.
The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa, and the founder of the International Shabbat Project. Visit to find out more.