Shabbat Inspiration

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Tuesday 14th September 2021

For a long time, I feared that one of my rabbis in yeshiva was a religious fundamentalist. He was one of the kindest, warmest and most thoughtful teachers I have ever had. He always had a word of encouragement for us and he baked the most delicious chocolate brownies for his students. But when I asked him the date, I was stunned when he told me that although he always knew the Hebrew date, he could not be sure of knowing the secular equivalent. This seemed like the height of fanaticism. The entire Western world followed the Gregorian calendar. Was he living in the dark ages? 

That was until I arrived at University. There, in an undergraduate lecture on how to analyse historical documents, our professor turned to a packed lecture theatre and said, "When you search for the date on a document, you can't always expect to find it written in the Gregorian calendar; the Chinese have their own way of counting time, the French Revolutionaries had theirs and of course it would make no sense for the Jews to count their years from the death of Jesus!" Out of the hundreds of students taking the course, only two of us were Jewish. Now the entire class understood what I had not. Although we spend much of our time mixing in broader society and adapting to its mores, Jews have our own way of counting time, it is central to our theology and we have no reason to be ashamed of it. I felt very humbled. 

Rodger Kamenetz is a British writer who joined a group of American community leaders and intellectuals on a trek to meet the Dalai Lama and explain to him how Jews have succeeded in preserving our faith and our communities despite thousands of years of exile. Describing their discussions, he reflects on the meaning of Jewish time: 

“Jewish time sings counterpoint to secular time, runs from evening to morning and moon to moon. This can be joyous music or excruciating dissonance. My father's father came from Chasidic Kamenetz in the Ukraine, chucked the Sabbath when he came to America and worked seven days a week to support his family. My mother's father, a Talmud scholar from Lithuania, became a barber here. But he refused to cut hair on the Shabbat which made him a poor, proud and bitter man.Today the struggle continues, for many Jews, the drumbeat of secular time overpowers the fainter ticking of the inner clock. How can we make Shabbat holy when Friday night is datenight and weekends are made for Michelob. Yet I've felt the  pull of deep Jewish time, especially in Jerusalem, where a new day begins with the setting sun, so that on a Friday afternoon, as the golden light thins, Shabbat settles in.”  (Rodger Kamenetz, Stalking Elijah, adventures with today's Jewish mystical masters (Harper, San Fransisco, 1997) p 53-4) 

At times, Jews have made incredible sacrifices to maintain their Jewish clocks. Here is one example from the Kovno Ghetto in World War Two written by Rabbi Elchanan Person, a survivor of that ghetto: 

“Many made great sacrifices in order to keep the Sabbath. They agreed to perform the most difficult labour during the week in order to be given freedom from work on the Sabbath. There were those who gave up the special food rations which were distributed to those would work seven days (including Shabbat) at the airfield in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath – this at a time when hunger was too great to bear.” 

In his history of the Holocaust and Halakhah, Irving J. Rosenbaum notes: 

“Similar sacrifices are recorded of the Jews in other ghettos of Nazi Europe. Even in the concentration camps, some individuals managed to avoid working on Shabbat. The brush makers in the labour camp of Plaszow "were particularly zealous in the observance of Shabbat . . . under circumstances which it is impossible to imagine. The Germans had set for us a production quota for each week. We worked madly to complete the required number during six weekdays so that on Shabbat, we could appear to be working at full speed whereas in reality we did no work at all. Only when the German manager made a sudden inspection (on Shabbat) did we turn on the machines since pikuah nefesh (the saving of life) was involved.” 

The ability to take pride in our culture and our time frames were ideas that the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reflected upon in 1977 as he planned the historic first visit to Israel byEgyptian President Anwar Sadat. Here is how he explained his thinking to the Israeli Parliament: 

“President Sadat indicated he wished to come to us on Saturday evening. I decided that an appropriate hour would be eight o'clock, well after the termination of the Shabbat. I decided on this hour in order that there would be no Shabbat desecration. Also, I wanted the whole world to know that ours is a Jewish State which honours the Sabbath day. I read again those eternal biblical verses: "Honour the Sabbath day to keep it holy", and was again deeply moved by their meaning. These words echo one of the most sanctified ideas in the history of mankind and they remind us that once upon a time, we were all slaves in Egypt. Mr. Speaker: We respect the Muslim day of rest – Friday. We respect the Christian day of the rest – Sunday. We ask all nations to respect our day of rest –

Shabbat. They will do so only if we respect it ourselves.”(Israel Government Press Office Bulletin, November 28th 1977 quoted in Yehuda Avner, The Prime ministers p. 471) 

In this, Prime Minister Begin was reflecting an ancient Jewish tradition which is a feature of modern Hebrew too, that Hebrew days do not have names, but each day is numbered in the countdown to

Shabbat, the focus of the Jewish week. For generations, Jews maintained this calendar of their own, and this rhythm to their weeks which defined the community and held it together leading the cultural Zionist leader Ahad Ha'am (d. 1927) to make his famous proclamation that “It may be said without exaggeration that more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath that kept them.” 

One of the most fascinating developments of recent times has been the growing appreciation by non-Jews of the gift of Shabbat. In the USA, a National Day of Unplugging has been instituted by

non-Jews who looking at their Jewish neighbours saw the value of Shabbat. They recognized that through our weekly detachment from the grip of technology, we liberate ourselves to enjoy the most important things in life, our families, our friends and our faith. It has not always been that way; ancient peoples were extremely cynical about our day of rest. Greek and Roman writers ridiculed

the Jews because of it accusing Jews of being a lazy people who took a day off because they did not like labour. (Described in Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Radical Then, Radical Now(Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2001) p.130) 

Even though they do not observe Shabbat, many non-Jews today are delighted to respect our traditions. The late and much revered Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Cyril Harris, relates how

President Nelson Mandela asked him to bestow a blessing at his wedding scheduled to take place on his eightieth birthday, Saturday 18 July 1988. The rabbi congratulated the President, but expressed

his regret that the Jewish Sabbath would prevent him from attending. When the President heard this, he immediately made arrangements for a special ceremony, determined that "his Chief

Rabbi" could come to the presidential home a day before the wedding to offer his blessing, which the rabbi duly did. (Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, For Heaven's Sake, (Valentine Mitchell, London, 2000) pp. 212-214)) 

Years later, when Nelson Mandela called Chief Rabbi Harris on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah to wish him a Happy New Year, the phone was answered by a maid who firmly rebuked the President for having the audacity to call a Chief Rabbi on his holy day! The President was contrite. He apologised, and in the course of their conversation, he discovered that he came from the same village as the maid! They struck up conversation and remained friends for the rest of their lives. (Related by Rebbetzen Ann Harris in her eulogy for Chief Rabbi Harris.) 

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, The United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi 

This series of ‘Shabbat Inspiration’ from US Living & Learning aims to show what generations of Jews, and now much of the world, sees in our special day of rest, how we can benefit better from it individually and how we can expand and develop its role in our own communities