Shabbos. The word connotes many wonderful memories from growing up: Going to shul with my father on Friday night; my mother’s fricassee; constructing blanket tents with my siblings. But in truth, it also brings back memories of looking at the clock, counting how many hours were left until it was over. I remember years when the Olympics figure skating finals were on Friday night and feeling sad about missing them. Although we recorded it on our VCR, watching after the fact wasn’t the same as watching the drama as it unfolded. Shabbos certainly had its fun but in all honesty, I think I looked at Shabbos as “just what we do”.
Today, I stop my students when we read Shir Shel Yom (Song of the Day) and ask them how many more days until Shabbos, genuinely feeling a sense of anticipation. I light my Shabbos candles on Friday and feel all stress abate. I listen to havdala at shul and I feel a sense of dread that Shabbos is over (and I really like my weekday life!). I have truly come to live for Shabbos. But looking back, this only happened when we arrived in Charleston, five and a half years ago.
When my husband was offered the pulpit at BSBI in Charleston, we wanted to learn more about the community before accepting and luckily, the rabbi emeritus of our shul in Houston had a brother who had been the longtime rabbi of the shul in Charleston. I will never forget the words of advice that Rebbetzin Barbara Radinsky offered on that phone call. She told me she was grateful she had raised her children in Charleston and she felt they were exceptionally close, in part because they spent so much time together, being the few kids who lived downtown. She said her kids loved to read because they spent so much time reading over Shabbos. And she told me that a Shabbos atmosphere wouldn’t be felt naturally in downtown Charleston, as it is in many frum communities but that we would need to bring Shabbos into our home each week.
Nearly six years in to our lives in Charleston, all of her words ring true. My kids are close (they also fight a lot), they read a lot and Shabbos truly needs to be an effort. On Shabbos, I sometimes I sit on the rocking chair on our porch and observe many college students and dog walkers pass by our home, but see few Jews dressed in their Shabbos best on their way to shul wishing each other “Good Shabbos”, which was a familiar scene in the community where I was raised. During the summer, at the conclusion of our Shabbos meal, we rush to our porch to watch the fireworks that mark the end of the Riverdogs’ baseball game at the nearby stadium- lots of fun, but atypical Shabbos entertainment. On Shabbos afternoon, I take my daily walk and although it is peaceful and wonderful to walk by the water, it is definitely unusual to dolphin watch on Shabbos.
Indeed, if one does not go to shul on Shabbos or observe Shabbos in their home, one might never know it was Shabbos in Charleston.
And perhaps for this reason, because it’s not a given for everyone where we live, we have begun to appreciate Shabbos all the more. My 4 year old son wakes up with a huge grin every Shabbos, and I like to hope it’s not just because he gets to have neon-colored, sugary cereal that he never gets to have during the week. My kids really look forward to Shabbos- the family time, their favorite foods, the sprinkled-covered challah and parsha themed desserts that they decorate, the divrei Torah they give, watching my little son lead Anim Zemirot so proudly in shul, the quiet time playing board games. And of course, the serenity that falls over the house after I light Shabbos candles and my kids and I snuggle on the couch reading.
But I don’t know if my kids would feel this way if it was something all of their classmates and neighbors did. I don’t know if they would be so excited about Shabbos if we didn’t try so hard to make Shabbos special for them. We do this because we live in Charleston and feel we have to, as per the advice of Rebbetzin Radinsky. But in reality, shouldn’t everyone heed her advice? Instead of focusing on the physical motions of making Shabbos happen, shouldn’t we also make great efforts to bring the spirituality of Shabbos into our homes and make it special?
When I hear about the challenge of teenagers texting on Shabbos, I think about how I sometimes felt about Shabbos growing up and I wonder if perhaps part of the issue is that Shabbos has become a given. On Thursday we go to school, on Shabbos, we go to shul. Kiddush, challah, nice clothes- it’s all so routine, so expected. Where is the anticipation? As parents, do we truly inculcate the excitement and inspiration about Shabbos in our kids that make feel it is worthwhile for them to put down their phones? Do schools perhaps focus more on the restrictions of the 39 Melachot (prohibited activities) than on the mitzvot, that if done right can transform Shabbos into something magical?
I think about a couple I met and the story they told me about their first real Shabbos. They had wanted to try it for a while and finally they decided, this would be the week. The husband drove to shul before Shabbos and the wife set the table and awaited her husband’s arrival. But it was taking a while for him to get back, longer than she imagined it would take for him to walk so she went outside to look for him. And that was when she saw him walking down their street, her usually stoic middle-aged husband with tears streaming down his face, so moved by the excitement of keeping his first Shabbos. I remember being so taken by this story when I first heard it. I had never felt that way about Shabbos.
I look at all of the people around me who have made the choice to keep Shabbos, not because it’s a given or because they’ve always done it, because in Charleston, it’s a rare choice, but because it means something to them. I think of our community’s longtime shaliach (emissary from Israel) who brings unbelievable ruach (Jewish spirit) to our community. When he makes Sfardi Havdalah in our shul, he personalizes it, including good wishes for everyone in the community in a way that engages all of the listeners. I love how he pauses before saying the last bracha, as if he is so genuinely sad to see Shabbos go.
That’s the way we should feel about Shabbos. That’s the way we should make our kids feel about Shabbos.
I think about those who came to this country in the 1920’s and were told that if they didn’t come to work on Saturday, they shouldn’t report to work on Monday. So many willingly gave up their jobs, not knowing where their next dollar might come from. Could our children possibly understand what compelled people to make that choice? I don’t think I could have, had I not moved to Charleston and seen modern day versions of such stories .
Do we truly believe that Shabbos is something special and unique? Are we truly educating our children that Shabbos is for the soul to savor, a day that binds families together, especially in this world so addicted to electronics and entertainment and diversion. And if we do not really feel this ourselves, if we do not show this to our children, do we really expect our kids to sacrifice for it?
And so I challenge myself and I challenge anyone reading this- educators, rabbis, parents: what are we doing to teach our students, congregants and most importantly, our children, to not just observe Shabbos, but to love and appreciate Shabbos? Perhaps only by remembering what Shabbos truly is, can we keep it holy.