Shabbat wasn’t always a part of my life.
It was when I was a child: Growing up, Shabbat was a constant, a day joyfully distinct from the rest of the week. My brothers and I got an extra treat after Friday night dinner, and lollipops in shul. Shabbat meant special clothes (I loved my Shabbat shoes and Shabbat coat), special tableware (the china in my home was always referred to as the Shabbat dishes), and delicious multi-course meals where the adults would linger over conversation and the children would run off and play.
Shabbat was even spiritual! I particularly loved the melody we sang in my synagogue when putting the Torah away, and for the most part looked forward to services on Saturday mornings.
But there came a point at which—whether out of rebellion or curiosity or fatigue—I decided to stop keeping Shabbat.
That first week, Sunday found me quite out of sorts. I didn’t know what day it was; I hadn’t had that feeling of closure as one week transitions into a new one—and it was rather disconcerting. But I soon became accustomed to having the days flow one into the next into the next with no prescribed pause, with the only chance for breath coming if I remembered to inhale at some point between the outings and the socializing and the errands and the studying that quickly filled what had previously been a meaningful and unhurried 25 hours. Over time, a new set of habits shaped my week, and the spiritual muscle memory of what it meant to keep Shabbat began to fade.
Many things drew me back, more than I can share in this space. But equally as important to why I returned to a Shabbat practice was the way in which I was able to return. It began with three friends: the four of us decided to meet on Saturday afternoons in my apartment to study the week’s Torah portion. This mini community helped me reorient my week to Shabbat, helped restore the rhythm I had been out of for so long.
Wanting to take another step in, I moved from the East Village, where I had been living after graduating from NYU, to the Upper West Side, where several other friends were living. Four of us squeezed into a Classic Six apartment in the way that only happens in New York, and our place quickly became a hub for Friday night dinners. Another step: getting involved in a grassroots, volunteer-led minyan. Soon, Saturday mornings meant services, followed by lunch, followed by nap. Hosting meals, going to shul, putting a pause on errands and email—all of these practices became my “defaults” once again, transforming Saturday back into Shabbat. Taking each of these steps, in the context of a Shabbat community, was like going to a spiritual gym: Slowly I rebuilt my Shabbat muscles to their former strength.
The Talmud (Shabbat 69b) teaches that if a person is traveling in an uninhabited area and loses track of the days of the week, she should count six days and observe Shabbat on the seventh. In other words, the cadence of Shabbat is to be reestablished, regardless of whether it is the correct day. This teaching underscores the power of regular rhythms—and their accompanying rituals—to shape our lives and our souls.
Two-and-a-half years ago, many of us lost the rhythms that had shaped our Jewish lives. We traveled through unknown territory and (sometimes literally) lost track of the days. We fell out of the habits that were at the center of our community and so many of us have, understandably, struggled to return to our former practices. It’s time to rebuild those muscles.
As Felicia wrote in last week’s Toward Shabbat, to keep the momentum of community building going, to find our rhythm again, we are turning from the holidays to BJ’s Back Home Shabbaton on November 11-13. But that is only the beginning of how we can strengthen our spirituality. This will be a year of supporting one another to build, rebuild, or deepen our Shabbat practice: Following the Shabbaton, we’ll have regular community dinners, new resources to bring Shabbat into our homes, a variety of Shabbat havurot (small groups) for members, and more. May we all take another step, as individuals and as a community, to feel the powerful rhythm of Shabbat, and thus to imbue our lives with greater holiness every day of the week.