What can Shabbat Mean for Us? An Interview with Judith Shulevitz of the Sabbath World
To understand the depth of the Sabbath, I recommend that you read the interview of the author of the book, The Sabbath World, that recently appeared in the New York Times. Judith Shulevitz engages in the implications of Sabbath practice, the joys it brings, the challenges it presents. Many of the ideas that Shulevitz writes about were the inspiration for the creation of Shabbat with Friends. I would be interested in your comments after you listen to the podcast or read the transcript of the interview. Better yet, if you read the book, let me know your reactions. Below is the link to both the podcast and the transcript. The comment feature is under repair, but hopefully will be working soon.
Last year at the end of the month of January, I held the first Shabbat with Friends Gathering at our home. We invited a bunch of people to join us for an evening of singing and a rich Shabbos meal. I really did not know how it would all turn out. Would the guests enjoy each other? Would people respond to the Jewish music? Would people want to come again?
So many unknowns, but in retrospect this lovely Shabbat gathering would set the tone for the nearly twenty Shabbat with Friends gatherings and counting that have convened since. At every one of these gatherings, we experiment with how to build community. At every one of these gatherings, we are mindful of “the art of gathering” as we provide opportunity for meaningful relationships through sharing sacred time. At every one of these gatherings, we attempt to cultivate Heschel’s description of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time. At every one of these gatherings, we celebrate hosts as they engage in the mitzvah of “Jewish” hospitality (hachnasat orchim).
We bring a lot of intentionality to Shabbat with Friends Gatherings. Sometimes those intentions are fulfilled, other times our intentions don’t quite match the results. In either case we are always learning and getting better at creating magical Shabbat experiences that help people to rediscover Shabbat.
I served most of my career as a congregational rabbi. My role was to set the table of the Jewish year for my community. That included the wide array of worship services expected of a “full-service shul”. Offering weekday, Shabbat, Festival worship was my primary duty. Add to that the variety of life cycle events for members, classes offered, administrative responsibilities, being a presence in the community, and counseling the sick and the suffering. The job of a congregational rabbi is extremely demanding, time consuming, and never ending. What is not said enough, is that this type of rabbinate makes it hard to focus on any one thing. Remember, if you are old enough, Erich Brenn on the Ed Sullivan show performing his multiple plate spinning act. After you watch this amazing video, you will begin to understand the frenetic to do list of the modern congregational rabbi.
By creating Shabbat with Friends, I wanted to try something different. First, I wanted to focus on one Jewish practice to share with others. I chose Shabbat because I love Shabbat. It has been a dear friend since my young adulthood. I also chose to make the Shabbat the focus because I felt it offered to people two important things that we seek in our lives: a path to spiritual rediscovery and a shared practice where meaningful relationships could grow.
To do this, I had to turn away from the synagogue model which had been so important to my rabbinical career. When the High Holiday season rolled around in the fall of 2022, seven months after Shabbat with Friends had started, I had to make a decision about how to approach the High Holidays. Every bone in my rabbinic body kept yelling at me to offer High Holiday services. These voice inside would shout, “Everyone comes! How could you not do them.” I shut out the voices and decided not to offer the High Holidays. This was followed by a decision to not to offer significant festival services and programs. Shabbat with Friends would focus only on Shabbat. Just Shabbat.
My decision was not only for the sake of rescuing my rabbinate and the quality of my life. It was also a decision that had many implications for Jewish communal life and the role of the institutions that function within it. My decision to start Shabbat with Friends was ultimately based on 40 years of observing the Jews make choices on the Jewish things they valued and the Jewish things they set aside. Could focusing on “Just Shabbat” make a difference and help Jews rediscover the depth of message they have inherited.
I hope I can with your help people convey what Heschel describes so poignantly.
“The Jewish contribution to the idea of love is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
Can we fall in love with Shabbat again?
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Rabbi Dov is the founder of Shabbat with Friends NM. He became a rabbi at 29 after schooling at UC Berkely, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has maintained a blog for over twenty years, giving commentary on a wide range of themes, concerns, and passions.