Shabbat Inspiration

Preparing for Shabbat
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Tuesday 14th September 2021

Visiting the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, is like entering a mini paradise. This territory is now a National Park and the Ecuadorian government does everything possible to protect the natural flora and fauna. The results are spectacular. At night, the sky is so bright that from a boat, you can see thousands of stars. In the daytime, one can swim and snorkel in clear waters alongside the most stunning array of fish, turtles and sea lions. A trip ashore takes enables one to encounter the animals, birds and fish who have lived with barely any human disturbance for thousands of years. That's why these creatures have no fear of the people who visit and one can walk close to playful sea lions, multi coloured crabs, iguanas, giant tortoises and sensational birds. Tens of thousands of visitors come each year to experience mankind and the animal kingdom living side by side in a Garden of Eden with no trace of human interference, commercialism or pollution.

But these islands of perfection cannot be sustained without a bevy of laws to protect them. At times, the level of protection seemed obsessive. As we arrived at the airport, we were told to dispose of any oranges because the seeds might disrupt the Galapagos eco-systems. Before stepping foot on the islands, we were repeatedly warned against doing anything which might disturb the environment even slightly; we had to stick rigidly to the signposted paths to avoid disturbing the nesting birds and it was forbidden to pick up a single shell to take home as a souvenir, lest a Hermit Crab be left without a shell in which to make his home. After each visit, we were hosed down in case any grains of sand on our clothes were accidently transposed from one island to another.

Perfection in this world is not a default, it's something we must work towards.

Shabbat was described by the rabbis as "a taste of the World to Come". For twenty-five hours, we try to create an island of paradise in our week. The results can be magnificent; families, friends and entire communities putting aside their work and worries, cutting off all contact with their weekday professional lives and focusing exclusively on God and the people around them.

Even as we sit and share stories about our week, thoughts and ideas, we resist the temptation to make our footprint on the world. On this day, we are the guests of creation. This is enshrined in the thirty-nine types of activity, melachot which are forbidden on Shabbat. Ostensibly these are the actions which were performed in order for the Jewish people to construct the portable Temple – Mishkan - that we constructed in the desert after the Exodus. But a careful look at the list will reveal that they constitute the actions necessary for building homes, making clothes and cooking food – all the necessities of mankind.

Even though in the Torah, the command not to do creative activity on Shabbat is not expanded on greatly, the laws of Shabbat are numerous and complicated. The rabbis recognised this and they referred to these laws as being like a mountain hanging on a fine thread".  But each law is carefully calibrated to ensure that the day of rest, preserves our spiritual eco system enabling us to enjoy its pleasures while remaining focused on the spiritual.

So in the lead up to Shabbat, we devote ourselves to preparations; creating menus, inviting guests, purchasing and cooking food, setting tables, washing and ensuring that we have smart, clean clothes in readiness. Preparing for Shabbat is a mitzvah, the Talmud tells of how the sages would leave their studies to help prepare for Shabbat. Raba salted fish, Rav Huna lit the lamp. Rav Papa plaited the wicks. Rav Hisda cut up the beetroots. Rabbah and Rav Yoseph chopped wood.

But it's not just the ancients who prepared for Shabbat. Senator Joe Lieberman describes how he takes part in Shabbat preparations and when it emerged that every Friday afternoon, he would bring his wife flowers for Shabbat, he was voted one of the most romantic members of Congress!

Then as the start of Shabbat approaches prior to sunset, it is time to send those last messages before switching off computers, phones, ipads, televisions and all other technological devices. At the same time, we put away pens, pencils, cash, credit cards and car keys, items that we will not use or even touch during Shabbat, so that for this weekly respite, we shut off our connection to work and technology focusing only on Shabbat and the people around us.

It’s a fine balance, but while the rabbis outlawed the handling of those devices, on Shabbat, they also valued the technology that enables us to sit in comfort surrounded by our friends and family. That's why, we use hot plates and Shabbat urns to ensure a ready supply of hot food and drinks and time-switches on our lights and heating systems to ensure a pleasant Shabbat environment.

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