By most definitions, I am not a religious Jew.
Biologically, I am as Jewish as bagels and lox. My father is Jewish; more importantly, so is my mother; so were their parents, and theirs, as long as my family has lived. Our Judaism sustained us in tiny Eastern European villages, where my ancestors survived illness, poverty and pogroms. Our faith carried us from Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus to Canada, America and even Israel. Our Jewish heritage binds us today: we reunite at scattered cousins’ B’Nai Mitzvot, complain about our lack of grains during Passover together, sit shiva for the shared family members who must leave us.
Yet in certain key ways, some might consider me unobservant. I don’t keep Kosher — not even anti-pork Kosher Lite — and feel no guilt over that fact. I rarely attend services outside of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days that even the most secular Jews honor. My support for the modern state of Israel wavers on a regular basis: I believe in Zion, but the nation Benjamin Netanyahu leads does not fit my definition of a Jewish state.
These past two weeks in college, however, I have found myself drawn to my faith in one key way. More seriously than ever before, I have begun celebrating Shabbat.
Keeping Shabbat is one of our Ten Commandments. On Mount Sinai, God ordered Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Due to the Hebrew calendar, Shabbat begins at sunset every Friday and continues until the sun sleeps the next day. Jews begin the celebration with a dinner, usually with family, and then attend services Saturday morning and evening. More notably, Shabbat should serve as a day of rest. Orthodox Jews conduct no creative work — that is, work which exercises control over their environment. Bakers stow away their flour; fire pits contain no flames; farmers turn off their plows and let their crops grow untrimmed. In a modern context, orthodox Jews cannot write or use electronics during Shabbat. They cannot drive or travel in any motorized vehicle, hence the Jews in pressed slacks and button-down shirts you may have seen walking through rain or heat on Saturday mornings.
I do not keep Shabbat as an orthodox Jew would. Yet in a short time, I have come to hold Shabbat’s principles dear.
Although I do work on Shabbat, I pause. My first Friday night at college, I attended a Shabbat dinner at the local Hillel. For that hour, I didn’t worry about my classes or cleaning my room. I let myself enjoy my food, mouthful and morsel alike. I made friends with the other Jews assigned to my table, all strangers with one common trait. I thought about my parents, although they had snuck into my mind anyway.
Unintentionally, I followed both of God’s instructions for the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy 5:12, He ordered us to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” That I did: for one hour, I turned off my cell phone and computer. I appreciated the double meaning tucked within the word “present.” I enjoyed my space in time and the people, food and prayer sitting there with me.
So, too, did I remember. In the Torah, God told us to recall not just the earth’s creation, but also our historic Exodus. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” Moses instructed the wandering Jews. “Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
As I ate my meal last Friday, surrounded by other Jews, all prosperous in a country where our religion cannot cause our deaths, I thanked God. We chorused gratitude for bread and wine in Hebrew prayer, and for the first time I understood the words I chanted. I was not just thanking God for the food in front of me, or for creating the world that bore it; I was thanking Him for the life I lead. I have never suffered enslavement; poverty hasn’t dirtied my skin. Love has never left my side, instead growing beside me in my mother’s womb and holding my hand to this day.
Appreciating the wonders of my simple existence, I thought with pain of all those who lack my ease. I bowed my head for Moses and the Jews he led to the Promised Land. I closed my eyes, respecting the empty stares that replaced Holocaust victims’ sight. I sent a prayer for the children, women and men in war-torn zones, robbed of family and peace, who could use the food on my plate as sustenance for a week.
I only spent an hour at Shabbat dinner, but afterwards I felt more centered and relaxed than I had in days. Amid the ceaseless hustle of New York City, I had found my calm.
It lasted a week. Today, I felt sensations too familiar to me. Stress; fatigue; hints of self-absorption. For the first time, I knew what I needed to do.
I gathered ingredients stored in my dorm’s mini-fridge. The meal I made was modest: a salad with apple, cheese, egg whites, tomatoes and orange peppers on a bed of baby greens. As I chopped my vegetables, I turned off my phone and put it aside. When I finished, I ate my dinner with a friend in our suite’s lounge area. We discussed her 30-mile bike ride, my plans to bake the next day and future school events. For the hour and a half in which I made and ate my food, I felt my ease return. It slipped in with my breath and stayed nestled in my chest, even when I exhaled a laugh. I felt like I was home with my parents again, sitting around the kitchen table, talking about our days and — most importantly — listening.
I attended no services and said no prayers. But in that meal, I practiced Shabbat as piously as my ancestors. I observed; I remembered; my peace restored itself.
The word “Shabbat” comes from the Hebrew letters Shin-Beit-Tav, which mean “to cease,” “to end” or “to rest.” Observing that pause with sincerity at last has taught me why Shabbat — more than even Yom Kippur — is Judaism’s most precious day. When we take any time, from one hour to 24, to give thanks for love and life, we embody the values that matter most. Humility. Thoughtfulness. Understanding. Compassion. Respect. In doing so, we become closer to God and thus ourselves — even if we’re eating with plastic utensils, sitting in a shaky chair in a college dorm.