SHABBAT – A DAY FOR CEASING – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
In general, Jews are very active – one might say, hyperactive! The Torah begins with a burst of Divine creative activity of, literally, global proportions. Then, we read in Genesis chapter 2 that God ‘ceased on the seventh day’ – va-yishbot ba-yom ha-sh’vi’i (:2) – and the phrase is repeated again in a slightly different way: shavat – God ‘ceased’ (:3). The Hebrew root, ‘to cease’ is Shin Beit Tav – from which the noun, Shabbat, is derived.
So, Shabbat is about ceasing – specifically, ceasing from work. That Genesis passage also repeats references to work three times. According to the Torah, on the seventh day, God ceased from the work of creating the world. But the Eternal One did more than cease. The passage tells us that God ‘completed’ the work on the seventh day – that is, created Shabbat – and then ‘blessed the seventh day and made it sacred’ – va-y’vareich Elohim et-yom ha-sh’vi’i va-y’kaddeish oto (:3).
So, the seventh day; a sacred day for ceasing: Shabbat. It was a revolutionary concept in ancient times, when societies were divided between those who had power and leisure, and their slaves, who laboured unceasingly. Shabbat: a universal day of rest for all – including, as we read in the two versions of the Shabbat commandment, one’s servants, domestic animals and the stranger (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
Shabbat: a gift to human civilisation. But we now live in a relentless 24/7 culture – where nothing ceases, even for a moment. So, we have the challenge of finding ways to enjoy the sacred gift of ceasing – at least for a moment. Perhaps, it is not possible to cease from all the activities which make up the daily round. But we could make a start by ceasing from the ones that most enslave us – and what those activities are, will be different for different people. Perhaps, the person who is always on their mobile phone and laptop, could switch off these devices for a few hours, and take the opportunity to be with family and friends. Of course some people have no choice but to work on Shabbat, but even a long working day can be interrupted. If we cease, mindfully, even for a brief interval, we give ourselves the chance to feel the benefits of being rather than doing.
As progressive Jews who live complex lives, and do not wish to adopt an absolute approach to Shabbat and turn the day into yet another burden, finding meaningful ways of experiencing Shabbat can be difficult. Over the past couple of years, I have been working with Rabbi Rachel Benjamin to create a Liberal Judaism booklet on Shabbat, which is due to be published in 2012. Hopefully, it will be a useful resource – and a source of gentle encouragement…