Imagine that you are about to take a trip to another world.
You are preparing for a most exciting experience. It will be a totally different place, and you are looking forward to things you have never seen or experienced before.
But it is different, and you will have to adjust to it. Your experiences here will be of little use to you once you get there.
You are given an instruction manual, telling you how to live on this new world. It is a thick book, filled with detailed charts and lists. You read it through and are left very confused and distressed. How can one understand this new world? How will one possibly adjust to all these complex conditions and rules? Before you have started, you are almost ready to abandon the trip completely.
But you make up your mind and decide to go through with the trip. You get there, and as you expected, find it very difficult to adjust, but then the days pass, and you become used to your new world. After a while, all your questions and apprehensions have vanished.
A while later, you look at your instruction manual again. This time, you read it in a new light. Most of it now seems very obvious. Things look very different now that you have experienced them.
For many of us, the Sabbath is a new world.
We have difficulty understanding and really feeling its significance. Reading a book like this only seems to complicate the matter. It is talking of a world that seems very alien. We read, but somehow do not understand.
When put in writing, keeping the Sabbath seems like an impossibly difficult task. How can one remember all the rules and regulations, much less observe them? How can one possibly keep the Sabbath in this modem day and age?
It is not as difficult as it sounds. Hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the world keep the Sabbath, and the number is increasing every year. And, for most of them, observing it is one of the easiest and most enjoyable things possible.
But there is really only one way to learn about the Sabbath.
That is by trying it.
You may struggle through it on your own for a few weeks. A much easier way is to spend a few Sabbaths with an observant family and learn how to feel the mood, or you might spend a weekend or two at a Shabbaton. But gradually, you will learn the feeling of Shabbat, and once you really feel it, you will never forget it.
Many things in this book may now seem strange. But once you have the feel of the Shabbat, they will be very obvious. It will be like reading a guidebook of your own home town. Once you live there, it no longer appears strange.
But Shabbat must also be a do-it-yourself project. In order to really feel the Shabbat, you cannot wait for it to come to you. You must get into it. The Torah tells us (Ex. 31:16) “to make the Sabbath.” Every person must make his own Shabbat. You must prepare yourself and get into the mood. Only then will you be able to feel its true significance, for Shabbat is not an intellectual exercise. If it were, meditating about it would be enough. We might provide explanations, but true understanding only comes from doing and feeling.
In a way, Shabbat is like love. You can talk about love for the rest of your life, but if you have never experienced it, you will never understand it. Once you have been in love though, no further discussion is necessary.
Shabbat is a bond of love between ourselves and G-d.
To understand it, you must experience it.
Do It Yourself
The Shabbat mood begins with its preparation. The Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” Our sages teach us that in order to truly keep it holy, we must remember it all week long and prepare for it. If you see something you will enjoy on Shabbat, by all means set it aside for use on the Sabbath. 1
The preparations for Shabbat reach their peak on Friday afternoon. You then direct most of your activities toward Shabbat. Recall the lesson of our sages, “He who prepares on Friday, will eat on Shabbat.” 2 Anticipate it as you would an important visitor. After all, Shabbat is the Queen of all Creations. 3
Eat lightly on Friday afternoon. Work up an appetite for the Shabbat meal.
Make sure that you will have the tastiest possible food for Shabbat. If possible, do something to help prepare the meal. Make sure that everything will be just right for the Shabbat Queen.
Clean up your room and tidy your belongings. Put away all weekday things. Prepare your surroundings to reflect the Shabbat mood.
Take a relaxing bath or shower. Cleanse your mind and soul along with your body.
Put on your best clothes. Dress as if for an important occasion. If possible, have special Shabbat clothing set aside.
Many of our Tzadikim (pious people) have the custom of reading the Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) just before Shabbat. It is the most beautiful love poem ever written, telling of the love between G-d and His people. Read it if you have time, and try to feel this love.
Prepare the table for the Shabbat meal. Cover it with a fine white tablecloth. Set it with your best china and silver in honor of the Queen.
Set aside two Challahs, Lechem Mishneh of Shabbat, and cover them with a clean napkin or special cover. Prepare the wine for Kiddush along with a special goblet set aside as a Kiddush cup. If possible, try to have a silver one.
Make sure that candles will be lit in the room where you will eat. If there is no one else to light them, do it yourself. Light them 18-20 minutes before sunset and gaze at their light for a few moments. Feel them radiate the light of Shabbat.
As the Shabbat arrives, treat it as an honored guest. Wrap yourself in a hush of serenity. Try to raise the plane of your life. Direct your conversation, and even your thoughts, toward a higher level.
Now is the time to gather and pray. If you have a synagogue within walking distance, join with their Sabbath service. By no means destroy the Shabbat spirit by riding in a car. It violates both the law and mood of Shabbat. If there is no convenient synagogue, find a quiet corner and pray by yourself.
If you can read Hebrew, go through the service in our ancient, sacred language. Even when you do not understand the words, listen to their sound and feel them on your tongue. Imagine these same sounds spoken by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and David. Let your mind relax and allow the words to become part of you. Let the Holy Language and the Holy Day bind themselves together and surround you with light on all sides. A siddur with an accurate and modern translation will help make the words even more meaningful.
If you cannot read Hebrew, say the prayers in English. Ponder their meaning and let them penetrate your being. When you say “Blessed are You,” you are not just saying words. Think for a moment about this “You.” Don’t just say the prayers —address them to G-d.
Walk quietly home from synagogue. You might gaze at the stars and recall the Psalmist’s words (Ps. 8:4), “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars which You have established . . . What is man, that You think of him, or the son of man, that You remember him?” Do not forget the answer . . . G-d does indeed remember.
Enter the house with a Shabbat greeting —” Shabbat Shalom”, or “Good Shabbat.”
Sing Shalom Alechem and the Kiddush. As you say the words, let the Shabbat enter into you. Drink the Kiddush wine and let it lull you into a state of Shabbat serenity.
Wash your hands with a blessing, and remain silent until the blessing over the Challahs is said. Dip it in salt, and chew the portion slowly, relishing every morsel. Keep in mind that you are eating it as an offering to G-d.
Take a moment and enjoy the Shabbat meal. Perhaps you too will taste the “special seasoning” that Shabbat adds to the food. 4
Let your mood be both happy and reflectful. Hum a tune. If you can, sing the Zemiros (Table Hymns) from a prayer book, or any Jewish song.
Close the meal with the Birkas HaMazon (Grace After Meals). Thank G-d for giving you food and for the special blessing that comes with this day.
After the meal, it is a time to relax. Use this time to learn about G-d and His teachings. Read the portion that will be read from the Torah that particular week. Take a quiet stroll.
Now is a time to be alone with G-d for a while. Take a calm walk alone, or sit in your room. Ask G-d to help you feel the holiness of Shabbat.
Reflect a moment on your life. Ask yourself: What am I doing and where am I going? What does life, mean to me? What am I doing wrong, and how can I improve myself? Ask G-d to help you find answers.
Be happy that you’re alive.
Shabbat is a time to get together. If you know others who keep Shabbat, gather together with them. Use the long winter Friday nights and summer Saturday afternoons as a time of companionship. Sing songs and tell stories. Use it as a time to learn together. Strengthen your bond of friendship.
As the evening draws to a close, let the serenity of Shabbat overwhelm you. “Sabbath sleep is a delight.”5 As you prepare yourself for the night, say the Sh’ma and place yourself in G-d’s hands. Fall asleep in Shabbat rest.
Begin the Sabbath day in the same mood. Spring out of bed, and make prayer your first order of the day. Let the morning service awaken you, both physically and spiritually. Make the second Sabbath meal at noon as much of a banquet as the first the night before. Spend the day in deep awareness of Shabbat. Let study and friendship help you keep the mood.
As the sun begins to set, you should feel a change. The Queen is preparing to leave. The third Sabbath meal is a time of sweet longing for a day that is about to close.
When the skies are dark and the stars appear, Shabbat is over. It is time for Havdalah, the prayer that ushers in a new week. Inhale the spices and enjoy a last taste of Paradise. Gaze at the twisted candle, and meditate about how this day will brighten the coming week.
Do all this, and you will begin to feel the spirit of Shabbat. You might not feel it all the first time, but do not be discouraged. If you truly seek it, it will eventually be yours. The task is not difficult, but you must persevere. You are on the quest of Eternity. Eventually you will find it.
We have a promise:
G-d Himself told His prophet. (Isa. 58:13 f.):
If you trample not the Sabbath,
do no business on My holy day;
Call the Sabbath a delight,
and honor G-d’s holy day;
Keep yourselves from daily tasks,
from weekday interests,
speaking mere words.
Then will you find joy in G-d,
soar the earth’s heights,
take in Jacob’s heritage–
G-d Himself has said it.