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Joy in the Sabbath

As a child, Sabbath seemed to be a day of “don’ts”, the focus almost entirely on what we were not allowed to do for that 24-hour period – no TV, no shopping, no swimming, reading was allowed but only “Sabbath” books.  In fact, it often seemed that if something was fun it was automatically disqualified as a Sabbath activity.

As an adult, working 40-hour weeks, I certainly came to appreciate the day of rest offered by the Sabbath, although I found getting up to get to church harder and harder, more like “work” than something to look forward to.  And in our modern life, with five-day work-weeks and two-day weekends, Saturday often seems to be differentiated from Sunday only by church attendance and, again, the things we aren’t allowed to do. 

I’d often been told that Sabbath was a day to contemplate God’s creation through nature, which usually meant an after-lunch walk, or reading the Bible.  There was  also the sense of community fostered by going to church every week.  And all these things are true, and good, but they never seemed quite enough.  To be honest, I kept Sabbath out of habit, because I’m a Seventh-day Adventist and that’s what we do, but there wasn’t much joy in it.

Then, a few years ago, I heard a worship service given by a woman who had spent several years in Israel, getting to know and worshiping with her Jewish neighbors and she expressed the joy in the Sabbath that had usually been missing in my experience.  The enthusiasm with which she spoke of how the Jews look forward to the Sabbath each week, how the day is filled with festivity and community filled me with a longing to feel that way about Sabbath myself.  What could I learn from the Jewish Sabbath that would make my own Sabbath more blessed?

For one thing they approach sunset Friday night with anticipation.  Preparation often begins the day before so they are ready well in advance.  As creation began with light so the Sabbath does; just before the sun sets they light and bless the candles.  Traditionally it is the wife who does this, because it is she who is most intimately connected with the home and, some say, because women’s naturally spiritual nature makes them most suited to welcoming in the Sabbath.  Usually two candles are lit, one for each reference to the Sabbath in the scriptures –  “Remember the Sabbath” (Exodus 20:8) and “Observe the Sabbath” (Deuteronomy 5:12).  Some light an extra candle for each child and some light seven (for the days of the week).  After lighting the candle the woman closes here eyes and recites the blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai E1oheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light.”

Only after the blessing is completed does the woman open her eyes, as with the eyes closed she can concentrate more fully on the blessing itself and postpone the moment of enjoying the results of the blessing, seeing the light itself, for longer.

Then they may attend a special Friday night prayer service at the Synagogue and when they return they sing a special hymn of praise Shalom Aleikhem, which means “Peace unto You”.

Before dinner comes what I think is the loveliest part of the evening.  The husband recites the “Woman of Valor” verses from Proverbs 31 to bless his wife and show his appreciation of what she has done for the family during the week.  In Jewish tradition the poem was originally composed by Abraham as a eulogy for his wife Sarah.

Then the parents bless the children, expressing aloud their love for them.  The procedures differ in different families but usually one or both of the parents place their hands on each child’s head and blesses them, sometimes followed by a kiss and words of praise for the child.  The blessing for a son is “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Joseph’s sons) and for a daughter is “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”  After blessing each individual child they may bless all the children with:

“May God bless you and watch over you.

May God shine His face toward you and show you favor.

May God be favorably disposed toward you and grant you peace.”

The wine and bread are blessed before the meal, which is a festive affair, often involving special songs, and then four different blessings and thanks are offered again after the food has been eaten.

There is a beauty and structure to these traditions and rituals that we, in our hurry to get the whole thing over with, might dismiss as archaic or meaningless.  But how much more meaningful could the Sabbath be if we welcome it in with such grace and joy?

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