Almost three years ago, in the Hebrew year 5774 (or 2013), I had more or less just started learning about Judaism and was still touching on the basics of each topic. Rosh Hashana had just ended and I was speaking with a friend about it, when she suddenly said, “I’m sad because Yom Kippur is on a Shabbos this year.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked. “Yom Kippur is one of those holidays that’s like Shabbos anyway, right? So you still can’t do all the things you can’t do on Shabbos anyway.”
“Yeah,” she conceded. “But it’s just different. It’s missing a Shabbos and having to wait a whole other week for it.”
In truth, I still didn’t understand the problem. Shabbos was every week. What was the big deal about missing one? But I decided to stop pushing the issue, it was probably something that was just beyond me to understand, culturally and spiritually.
But that was a long time ago, and a lot of things have happened and changed since then. One thing was the discussion I had with my mentor Eliezer about Shabbos. He shared with me the idea that Shabbos is not actually the “day of the rest” that most people view it as. Following that line of thought, it would seem that the purpose of resting on Shabbos would be to regain energy for working the other days of the week. It would seem that Shabbos is serving the workweek. But in reality, the ONLY purpose of the previous 6 days is to serve the Shabbos. In Eliezer’s words: “We work only to be able to properly sanctify Shabbos, we cook to be able to eat on the Holy day. We are fulfilling our physical requirements and monetary gain to be able to only connect and come close to G-d without any distractions. Ideally, we would have Shabbos 24/7/365. And there will be a time for that, soon.”
He continued by sharing Rabbi Akiva Tatz’ explanation for the well known saying that “Shabbos is a taste of the world to come.” Again, in Eliezer’s own words: “One explanation is that we only have Shabbos to teach us what our entire lives are about. Just like we work to accomplish, build, create, and gain during the workweek to be able to “have” physically on Shabbos, so too in this life we toil, do good deeds, learn Torah and do Mitzvos to “have” spiritually in the world to come. In both scenarios, once the ‘end-day’ comes, one is unable to amass any more wealth. There is no level-upping in Shabbos/the next world. What you have created for yourself you have, and have no more ability to gain. Use time wisely to accomplish what we can so we will be set once that sun comes down.”
But another thing that was instrumental in changing my understand of Shabbos is that since then, I’ve tried it for myself, sort of. For lots of reasons but most especially the fact that I’m legally forbidden to do so, I’ve never had an actual full Shabbos day. But I did start a little tradition for myself of shutting my phone off for half a day or so at a regular time during the week, to simulate a Shabbos. It’s nothing close to the real thing, of course – no candle lighting or eishes chayil or kaddish and it’s not 25 hours long, and my one rule (plus a few other scattered ones) is a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the 39 categories of forbidden work – but somehow that half day was enough to make me fall in love head over heels with Shabbos, or at least get the general idea of it. It also helped me understand some concepts on a deeper, more personal level and not just in my head.
First, Shabbos taught me that G-d runs the world, and not me. I don’t need to constantly be on top of everything. Sometimes, you just have to let go and let things go as they naturally are, and it’s okay. The world won’t end (!!). And on a similar thread, it teaches me that ultimately, G-d owns the world, and not me. I am merely “borrowing” it the other days of the week, and on this day, I give things back to its owner, and won’t meddle – not even by killing that annoying little mosquito. It’s a beautiful, regular reminder of who is really in charge.
This leads to the second thing: Shabbos taught me that I can take time for myself. I don’t need to be at the beck and call of other people texting me or emailing me or sending me messages on Facebook. Sometimes, it’s okay to tell everybody to wait while I give my own self some attention. I didn’t anticipate how good this would make me feel, making myself a priority for myself. It was regularly telling myself that I am important too, and worth giving a few hours of, well, less divided attention to.
“Shabbos” also helped me structure my week better. By knowing exactly when I could take breaks, I could focus better when it was time to work. This was difficult for me in particular because of the extremely flexible nature of my jobs. The only truly “structured” job I have is being a violin teacher, though that is arguably also flexible because as other teachers know, teaching also involves time outside the lesson to prepare materials for the students. Another job I have is being a research assistant for an ongoing project at my previous university, difficult precisely because of its flexible nature – as long as I submit everything I need to, I can work however long and whenever and wherever I want to. And it’s always the case that the more time you have, the less you get done. While I love the flexibility of the jobs I do, the “unstructuredness” became tricky, as my days and nights, as well as weekdays and weekends started blurring. My “Shabbos” helped force me to implement some kind of stricter schedule on myself, and interestingly, it was more liberating.
Another effect I noticed from my “Shabbos” was that it kind of cleared a fog I didn’t even know I had in my mind. I never noticed how often I checked my phone for notifications and by putting it away, I could suddenly focus so much on what was happening in the “real world.” I never noticed how at the back of my mind, I was constantly thinking of what needed to be done and who would be writing me, etc. Shabbos cleared those for me for a time, and reminded me during the rest of the week not to get too caught up also. One of my favorite things about Shabbos I learned from the handful of times I was actually with my Jewish friends on that day – they told me that really, on Shabbos, you aren’t allowed to make plans for or even talk so much about after Shabbos. And it’s such a beautiful idea. It really forces you to keep your mind on the present instead of constantly making plans for the future. Shabbos takes away all these distractions and forces you to focus on the now, now, now, a tremendous skill most people have lost.
I could go on and on because Shabbos truly is so beautiful and there are so many levels to it, but I will end with this: Not too long ago, I was informed that we would be having an orchestra concert on “my Shabbos” and I had to be there. Before I even fully registered the thought, I felt a small pang of disappointment and a voice in my head went, “Aww, no Shabbos for me this week.” I was quiet for a second or two before smiling to myself. So that’s what my friend meant. And I can only imagine what missing a real Shabbos must feel like!
P.S. Eliezer helps run a Facebook page called Daily Dose of Daf where he and partner post daily practical lessons for life from the Torah. Check it out! For those without Facebook, they have a website too.
P.P.S. In case there is anyone who read this who does not actually know what Shabbos / Shabbat is, you can read about it here: What is Shabbat?