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Toward Shabbat: Emor

Pop quiz: What day is it today?

If you’re having a little trouble coming up with the answer, you’re not alone. Quarantine and shelter-in-place orders have left many of us without our usual markers of time; many aspects of our daily routines and weekly schedules have become impossible or unsafe in this new reality. Before the lockdown, my days had a fair amount of structure, with the clock driving our morning routine so I could get the kids to the school bus on time, then some space for myself before jumping into a work day organized around meetings, and evening again devoted to family responsibilities. Now, we are all together constantly, there is no real “school day,” and the boundaries between work and home are completely blurred. One hour bleeds into the next, one day bleeds into the next, and plenty of Wednesdays have gone by where I’ve found myself wondering: is today Tuesday?

The Benefits of a Daily Routine

Time is deeply connected to our sense of well being. Studies have shown how creating routines—for both adults and children—can contribute to our mental health. Routines anchor us, offering a measure of predictability in an unpredictable world. They can lower stress, help us sleep better, lead us to prioritize activities that are nourishing, and in some cases provide relief from depression.

Judaism, in its wisdom, has known this from the start. The very first mitzvah (commandment) given to the Jewish people is to create a calendar, to mark the first day of each month by the new moon in the sky. This is the commandment of Rosh Hodesh, the new month. Soon after, we are given the mitzvah of Shabbat, which also adds structure to our lives. Unlike Rosh Hodesh, which brings us into awareness and alignment with the rhythm of the natural world, the mitzvah of Shabbat creates a cycle that is not found in nature: the seven-day week. Both of these mitzvot reflect our tradition’s understanding of the human need for time-related structure. Sometimes that structure is informed by the world around us, as in the case of the overall Jewish calendar and its holidays, whose themes correspond to the unique energy of each season. 

Sometimes, as in the case of the week, it is our imposition of structure over nature that is significant. With Shabbat, we are saying that we, as humans, have the power to make one day different from the rest, we can structure our lives in a way that adds intentionality and holiness. Indeed, the Talmud teaches (Tractate Shabbat 69b) that if you are wandering in the wilderness and lose track of the days, you count six days and then observe Shabbat. So important is it for us to create this marker of time, that we are required to observe Shabbat even on the wrong day of the week!

In our relationship to time, we are sometimes bound by the natural world and its rhythms, and sometimes we are able to shape it. Both aspects of this relationship give a life lived by the Jewish calendar the structure that can provide both stability and meaning.

Practicing Shabbat

During this period of blurry time, I am finding Shabbat more precious and necessary than ever. It is my one day free of Zoom—that new blessing and bane in our lives. My week is directed to preparing for this special day: What will I cook? Will I bake challah? Havdalah brings a true sense of distinction, a new energy for a new week. As I navigate the tremendous uncertainty of this moment, I am finding that Shabbat is an anchor supporting my mental and emotional well being—not only my spiritual life.

If you have found yourself struggling, like so many of us, during this period of unpredictability, then beginning or deepening your Shabbat practice may help. Creating this rhythm to your week will not cure depression or banish all stress or eliminate your need for daily routines the other six days of the week. But it may be a balm, a gentle and comforting tether at a moment when it is so easy to feel unmoored. I pray that Shabbat, along with other tools that Jewish tradition offers us, helps us find the steadiness we need during this troubled time.