Reclaiming the Soul of Shabbat in Quarantine

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Shabbat Candles

One of the most striking things that I have heard from students and families about the first Shabbat under quarantine has been the extent to which so many people created a much “more spiritual Shabbat” than the one they were used to. This phenomenon points to a number of lessons that we can use going forward to significantly improve our family life, our commitment to Shabbat and our relationship with God, lessons that we will hopefully be able to make a part of our lives long after the quarantine is over.

One of the biggest challenges of religious life is the extent to which ritual can become routine and thus be taken for granted. When it comes to Shabbat, there can be a tendency to “fall into” Shabbat, by which I mean that it can become a lifestyle rather than a life choice. We light candles, make kiddush, eat a more elaborate meal and go to shul, but these things can become more a manifestation of the way we spend our Friday nights and Saturdays rather than about the way we connect to God or one another on Shabbat. The quarantine reawakened within many of us the notion that Shabbat is a special day that needs to be embraced rather than just lived.

Routine is broken when we become aware, when we are forced to think about what we are doing. Time and again I have heard from people about the special things they did that they don’t normally do, a number of which will be listed below. But what they all have in common is that people broke their routine, avoided the habitual, even if it meant just changing their state of mind, becoming more purposeful and aware of the things they do on Shabbat every week. In short, they thought about it. The quarantine reminded many of us that Shabbat is something that can be appreciated more if we raise our awareness, if we tap into new ways of looking at the day than we might otherwise.

The good things in life, the meaningful things, generally don’t just happen – we help create them. Rav Soloveitchik used to say that kedushah, holiness, requires preparation and that you cannot have holiness without it. We prepare for important guests, we prepare for important events in our lives, and we thus stand to gain an enormous amount when we prepare for Shabbat, not only physically, but spiritually as well. That’s not something that many of our children do weekly; they, and we, tend to just “do” Shabbos. When the quarantine prevented us from going to shul, or enabling our kids to have play dates, or allowing any of us to leave the house to socialize with other friends and family and community, it forced us to anticipate how we were going to spend the day, to plan how we would make it special this week despite the limitations. In so doing, we inadvertently added to the kedushah of the day for our kids and ourselves by preparing for it.

Most of us are fortunate enough to love our families and to cherish the time we spend with them. This is clearly a value in its own right, but in the context of religious development, research tells us that one of the portals to transcendence are the others in our lives. When we can get out of our own heads, when we can connect to others then we

can feel something that may be called spirituality. Making room for others enables us to actually feel better about ourselves and gives us insight into our place in the universe. Knowing that our families were the only people in the world that we could interact with for those 25 hours, forced us to focus on and appreciate those relationships in ways we might not normally consider. That’s why it should come as no surprise that when kids were asked to talk about what made that Shabbat more spiritual than others, they most often pointed to the quality time they spent with family.

In a related vein, one of the biggest challenges to our lives today is the lack of stillness. Without going on a tirade about technology, suffice it to say that it seems to be much more difficult to be alone with oneself than ever before, especially for younger people. We are addicted to our devices and even on Shabbat when we do not use them, it seems like boredom can be a bigger challenge than ever. And yet, stillness lies at the heart of talking to God, having the presence to engage with the Presence. This past Shabbat apparently enabled many to slow down, to take some extra time to daven and reflect, about God, about my relationship with Him, and about my relationship with Shabbat. The quarantine enabled many of us to recall that Shabbat is an island in time where we can find solitude and solace.

Herewith are some suggestions for keeping the effort going primarily based on the experiences of my students this past week:

1. Empower everyone to have a hand in the preparations for Shabbat. Whatever the traditional roles of the household are, be it the cooking, the cleaning, the preparation of Shabbos clocks or the dining room table, these days everyone can take part in something new. Preparation creates what Rav Soloveitchik called “erev-Shabbos Jews.” The more we prepare, the more we will appreciate.

2. Do kabbalat Shabbat together. It’s easier and quicker to daven on your own. It’s easier to let your young child or your oldest teen off the hook by not insisting they join in. But last week, people made a point of saying Kabbalat Shabbat together or, rather, singing together. One family set up a shtender and mechitzah in their home to replicate shul. Many families just sang together. Others went outside to the back porch or backyard and sang together there, only to hear and subsequently join in (vocally) with neighbors who were doing the same. A sense of community was created, and by all accounts, a sense of transcendence and kedushah.

3. Sing Zemirot together. “We don’t usually take the time,” said one student. “We’re all usually off someplace else,” said another. “We sang slow songs for seudat shlishit,which we don’t normally have.” But that week lots of people sang their hearts out at dinner and at lunch and in the late afternoon in ways that they normally do not. Time stood still in a way that it is supposed to do every Shabbat. We can learn to hold onto it again.

4. Have some meaningful conversations at the table. Some students were pleased that there was no company. “It was just us, and that doesn’t happen very often.” “We were all able to enjoy each other’s company without rushing to somewhere because we had nowhere else to be.” Shabbat for some, it seems, has come to suffer the same character as a weekday. Research says that family meals are a protective agent against bad habits and dangerous experimentation. They are also a powerful place to define and deepen family values and family stories. Families talked about ethical dilemmas, about the parshah and, of course, about current events. Ideally, the talk should be as Jewishly rooted as possible, but it need not only be so. The important thing is to talk. It might not come as naturally for some, so what you want to talk about is worth thinking about in advance.

5. Learn Torah together. A number of families had a formal leining/Torah reading in the morning that a parent or child led, just to emulate the shul experience. And some interspersed divrei Torah or questions between each aliyah. Some people picked up books or sefarim that they don’t normally look at it, while others sat and learned the parashah or something else together. Of course, this should be an enjoyable experience not a tension-filled one. If it is the latter, then it would be best to be avoided altogether. Here again, for a parent or a child who is less secure in their learning, it may be worth preparing in advance or at least thinking about what and how much to learn. There are parshah sites galore on the Internet and for younger children, anything that has a fun game or quiz element to it can make it more interesting (but not super-competitive please).

6. Go for a walk together, play games together, spend more time together rather than just retreating to one’s room or favorite couch. Social distancing means staying away from people outside your family. But families who took walks together found themselves getting closer, just enjoying one another’s company. Research shows that families who are involved in religiously timed activities this way (even if there is nothing intrinsically “religious” about going for a walk or playing board games), gain something called “spiritual capital,” an unarticulated but palpable environment that children and adults find meaningful and which binds them together in ways that strengthen religious connection.

Consider that we may be in for these kinds of Shabbatot longer than anticipated and so the challenge and the obligation will be on each of us to create Shabbat. As one student wrote to me: “Because there were no built-in obligations or shiurim we could go to, I think we realized that we really had to put in the effort to create a meaningful Shabbat and I find that when you yourselves are the ones creating the spirituality and the unity, it is much more rewarding. We sang out Havdalah and I thought about how this Shabbat is something that I will never forget.”

And finally, that same student highlighted the benefits and the prayers for the future that such a renewed Shabbat can bring:

“The nature of Saturday nights used to always bother me. It was almost as if everyone would await the end of Shabbat so they can go out and carry out their plans that they have been thinking about all day. However, this Saturday night was different. Nobody was rushing anywhere because where would they even go? In fact, we did not even end Shabbat until about an hour after it was over! It often takes tragedy or suffering to bring about achdut and a thirst for spiritual connection but all I hope is that even when, im yirtzeh Hashem, we do get to re-engage in our normal routines, that we strive to replicate this uplifting atmosphere.”

Amen! Why not start this coming week? Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz is a veteran day school educator and administrator who has published widely on curriculum, tefillah education, child and adolescent religious development as well as religious parenting. He currently teaches Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy at Ma`ayanot Yeshiva High School and is author of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award-winning Koren Ani Tefila Weekday Siddur as well as a companion volume on the Shabbat Siddur. He was a Jerusalem Fellow and served in various capacities including Headmaster at Ramaz High School for over 30 years.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.