Re-Learning How To Make Shabbat
For the first half of my life, Shabbat was made for me. I was born shomer Shabbat, or Sabbath observant, to parents who took the whole family to shul, often opened their table to guests from near and far, and kindled a warm, inviting atmosphere. Shabbat was more than just a day off; it was the day that we reveled in what matters most: gratitude, generosity, and connection with family, friends, and God. As a child, I couldn’t verbalize these values, but I learned them from my parents’ example.
Putting these feelings into words – song actually – started during my first summer at sleepaway camp. From the age of 10 to 15, I spent my summers at a Beis Yaakov camp, where making Shabbat was taken to a whole new level. Every Friday, hundreds of us swept, ironed, blow-dried, and dressed up all in the name of Shabbat, but what we did best was sing. From candle-lighting to Havdala, we sang. Some songs were blessings: “May we merit to accept every Shabbat with abundant happiness.” Some posed questions: “Ima, tell me please, what are you asking for, as you are standing before the Shabbat licht?” Other songs painted pictures of involvement and investment: “Seize the moment, grab the chance, everybody work with your own two hands, running to and fro l’kvod Shabbat. We didn’t just sing; we danced, clapped (a silent Shabbat clap), stood on benches, turned classic zmirot into small-scale productions. Shabbat wasn’t just something we did; it was something we were, beyond words or actions.
Many of the standard tunes followed me to college. As a student in a public community college, Shabbat was my portal to a vibrant Jewish social life. I threw myself into community initiatives like Yachad and NCSY youth programming, volunteering for every Shabbaton that I could attend. By my sophomore year, I was coordinating Shabbatons throughout New York and New Jersey for the adult division of Yachad and serving as an advisor for Upstate New York NCSY. In my senior year I added another project, working with fellow CUNY students to organize Shabbat and holiday programming for smaller Jewish communities. Shy by nature, I surprised myself by how often I went out of my comfort zone to recruit communities and participants for each program. Ultimately, I realized why this was: Shabbat was what I lived for.
After college, making Shabbat meaningful became a more difficult task. I moved to Washington Heights and as much as I loved the adventure of going to a different community twice a month, I found myself drawn to a more settled approach toward Shabbat. Wasn’t this a part of growing up? I explored the different shuls in the area and met new people. Together, we unfolded tables and chairs, divvied up cooking on Google spreadsheets, and made Shabbat on our own. No families, no parents, no organizations, just a few twenty-somethings who wanted to enjoy meals in good company.
Over time, figuring out where to spend Shabbat became increasingly awkward. When I went home to New Jersey, as a single person, there were times I felt out of place, and when I stayed in Washington Heights, table talk was generally limited to work, pop culture, and dating do’s and don’ts. There were shiurim and kiddushim that morphed Shabbat day into a hyper-social, overcrowded meet market. Before entering a packed social hall, I’d pray for the optimal balance of having something to say and not saying too much. To convince myself to stay, I told myself that I only had to give five minutes. If after that I felt unbearably uncomfortable, then I had permission to leave with a clear conscience.
I wanted to do my part to be social and meet people, but sometimes I found it exhausting. I used to connect with new people so easily, and at this stage, it was much harder for me. Before I graduated, my Shabbat activities were collaborative enterprises, with the clearcut goal of creating warm, engaging Shabbat moments. I started to wonder if I could feel connected to Shabbat without being a part of an enterprise, like camp, NCSY, and Yachad. In general, life was starting to seem less magical, and though I felt secure in my identity as a Torah-observant Jew, the intrigue and iridescence was flickering.
Around this time, I came across a passage from the Biblical commentary, Torah Temima, on the words “La’asot et HaShabbat (Exodus 31:16).” It states that “Shabbat can be like any other day of the week…the difference is in what we ‘make’ of it.” It hit me: the people and places that made Shabbat come alive for me, didn’t always exist. Someone had to create them. Someone identified that there were thousands of American Jewish teenagers who were disconnected to Shabbat, so they created NCSY. Someone identified that there were few communal opportunities for special needs individuals, so they created Yachad. The Beis Yaakov camp that taught me to seize and grab every moment of Shabbat did so very intentionally, with consistent commitment and evaluation. Now, it was time for my mission to make Shabbat meaningful for myself no matter where I was, no matter how ordinary a week it had been and no matter how ordinary a Shabbat it appeared to be. It was time for me to fully assume responsibility for creating those moments for myself.
I decided that for me, Shabbat was all about the basics: gratitude, generosity, and connection with family, friends, and God. Davening at shul, singing zemirot, hosting meals, and being hosted were all opportunities to make the most of the moment. As I continued to search for meaningful moments, I found that there were opportunities to be of service and get beyond the jitters and self-consciousness that I felt at kiddushim and potluck meals. Many Shabbat afternoons, I headed to the local nursing home and hospital, where I met the most amazing people: the elderly woman who said ‘thank you’ for every little piece of food I prepared for her, the bed-bound girl on dialysis who taught me how to play Mille Bornes in Yiddish, the husband who warmly encouraged me to speak with his wife who was in a coma. Shabbat became more than a day, more than a set of rules and rituals; it became a model for how life felt when lived for what matters most: family, community, connection.
I’ve written most of this in past tense because I don’t live in Washington Heights anymore. Since moving to Jerusalem, I’ve had to make Shabbat all over again, finding new people, new places, new sources of meaning in my new city. Even so, the basics still remain: there is always a way to prepare for Shabbat, to make it special. That’s the nature of the day, its gift to us, its legacy.
For millennia, the Jews have struggled for Shabbat. My great-great grandparents struggled to observe Shabbat without getting caught. My great-grandparents tried to keep Shabbat at a time when the American work week went straight through Saturday. For my grandparents, it was about finding the balance between being Jewish and being American. Today, we battle apathy. If we can do anything we want on the seventh day, why would it be this? We each need to answer this question for ourselves, helping each other as we embark on our own search. Shabbat can be a day like any other, or we can stretch and challenge ourselves to seek its magic, majestic moments.
Eliana Sohn enjoys writing about the unique choices and opportunities of 21st Century Jewry, previous generations, and the nexus of the two at zehdordorshav.wordpress.com and various Jewish media outlets.