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Toward Shabbat: Vayetze


Have you heard? Shabbat is all the rage.

Just this week, a New York Times article reported on what appears to be a growing trend of younger people celebrating Shabbat. Various reasons are postulated: a need to unplug from the constant barrage of technology, a yearning to rekindle connections that were squelched by the pandemic, a response to the surge of antisemitism. The article aligns with what we at BJ have been seeing in our own engagement of this demographic, and there was one line that—for me—captures the essence of this phenomenon: 

Shay O’Brien…attended her first Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home on the Lower East Side at the beginning of November. “It definitely felt more special than a regular dinner,” [she] said.

Shay O’Brien, at her first ever Shabbat meal, hit the nail right on the head: Shabbat does feel more special. Why? Like some of those mentioned in the article, I, too, have eaten many an uplifting Shabbat dinner sitting on a folding chair with my meal in my lap, or with a plate of semi-warm food served on paper plates with plastic cutlery, or having been squished into the corner of a hot and overcrowded apartment. While I am now more attentive to the details that can elevate a Shabbat dinner, I know it’s not fancy food or glittering crystal that create the “special feeling” that Ms. O’Brien experienced.

A classic Jewish children’s story tells of a rabbi who invites his friend the king for a Shabbat meal. Despite the food being served cold because the rabbi could not heat it up on Shabbat, the emperor heartily enjoyed the meal. Some time later, the rabbi extended another invitation, this time for a weekday dinner. Hot food was served, but the king expressed surprise and dismay that it was not as tasty as the cold food he had eaten at the Shabbat meal. The rabbi explained that the king was right—the food was not as good, because it was missing a certain spice that could not be attained on that day. The secret spice? Shabbat! It’s a sweet story with a sweet message about the unreplicable power of this holy day. 

This story is based on a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (11:4) about Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, a Sage of the second century and redactor of the Mishnah, and his friend the Roman Emperor Antoninus; many versions of the tale have been published over the years. But the midrash itself ends differently from any variation I’ve seen, with very particular and exacting language: When Antoninus asks what the missing spice is, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi replies:

שַׁבָּת הֵן חֲסֵרִין, אִית לָךְ שַׁבָּת.

​​What this food lacks is Shabbat. Do you have Shabbat?

There the story concludes.

“Do you have Shabbat?” With this question, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi suggests to us that it is not Shabbat on its own that is the secret spice, but that it is instead our relationship with Shabbat that is part of the magic. What makes the food taste better? What makes the dinner special? It is our conscious receiving of Shabbat, our intentional designation of Shabbat as a day different from the rest of the week. We have to actively embrace Shabbat for it to become the spice that makes things special. 

So: Do you have Shabbat? 

No matter what we are eating for dinner Friday night, where we are eating it, or how it is served, our answer to this question can always be “yes.” May we all find our way of “having” Shabbat, bringing it into our lives so that we can enjoy the deliciousness of its special spice, week after week.