V’shamru v’nai-Yisrael et-hashabbat…
The Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath…
Keeping the Sabbath—what does it mean? As a kid, growing up in the home of a Reform rabbi in Metropolitan New York, in the Fifties and Sixties, I had a pretty clear understanding of what it meant to observe Shabbat. (I didn’t equate that with keeping it or guarding it as the term Shomer Shabbes translates.) There were just certain things we were expected to do or not do in order to observe Shabbat.
In our home, throughout the week we ate dinner as a family at six o’clock sharp—every day. Family dinner on Shabbat was a cut above. Tablecloth. Good china. Candles. Kiddush poured from my grandmother’s cut glass decanter. Challah. A special meal. When we got to a certain age we regularly joined the folks at services, as well.
Saturday was more about what we did not do. We didn’t work. It was probably the one day of the week that one or more loads of laundry did not tumble in the machines in the basement. We did not engage in commerce. There were no shopping trips per se.
There were some exceptions.
The West Hempstead Rams played their football games on Saturday afternoons, and basketball on Friday nights. There were the occasional Friday night dances. If we had to dip into our pockets to pull out a quarter for entry to a high school event, that wasn’t exactly shopping. I suppose that Dad was less than thrilled that we were going to these events, but he must have decided to be selective about picking his battles.
Our family was not Shomer Shabbes. We were Reform Jews. We drove to temple. We turned lights on and off. We tore toilet paper. Relative to some of my peers, however, we were pretty far to the right. We toed the mark my father set, one that hardly existed in other households.
A generation later, as I pretty much set the standard for Jewish observance in the home we created in Palo Alto, family life was somewhat different. Our children had many extracurricular activities. Five of us gathering at the same table, at the same time, night after night, was a rarity. The one constant, however, was Shabbat dinner. On Shabbat, the kids were expected to be home for dinner—tablecloth, candles, good china, kiddush poured from my grandmother’s cut glass decanter, challah, and a special meal.
About twenty years later, as I was attending Davvening Leadership Training Institute. I was talking with my instructor, Rabbi Marcia Praeger. I don’t recall the exact content of the conversation, until the moment when I said to Marcia, somewhat apologetically “I’m not Shomer Shabbes,” to which she replied, in so many words, “We all get to decide how we choose to guard Shabbat. We don’t have to let others define that for us.” What a validating and liberating declaration!
That’s how I became Shomer Shabbes—not from becoming more stringent in my practice, but in honoring the practices I maintain to keep Shabbat alive in my life, for me and my family, and for Israel.
My father spoke from the bimah more than once about how liberal Jews of the day should not define their Judaism by what they don’t do --I don’t wear a kippah, I don’t keep kosher, etc. They must bring their minds and their souls to the task of understanding what, among the mitzvot, rings true for them, what they choose to practice in order to add meaning to their lives. When I reflect on those formative years in my parents’ home, I recall how, as a member of the high school marching band, I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig throughout the fall, supporting the football team and entertaining the crowd with music. On one of those days, quite unexpectedly, and to my great delight, Dad miraculously appeared at a game. He must have, on that autumn day, weighed the value of family versus that of Shabbat halachah, and family rang true for him.
The Union Prayer Book with which I grew up, contains a notable line from the Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am, “Even as Israel has kept the Sabbath, so the Sabbath has kept Israel.” In an era where new paradigms of Jewish practice are evolving, exactly how that’s done is up to each one of us.