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Slouching Towards Shabbat

I’m failing at Shabbat, the most important holiday of them all.

It’s not that I’m skipping it; for the past eight years, I’ve gone to services most Friday nights and many Saturday mornings.

I buy a challah every week. Light candles. Recite Kiddush.

I do feel some Shabbat separation — the literal translation of the word kadosh, holy — which delineates the six weekdays from sundown Friday.

This year, thanks to my holiday expedition, I’ve added one embargo: no email on Saturdays.

But I’m not experiencing the supposed tranquility and blissful disconnection of Shabbat, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “a palace in time.”

I’ve heard rabbi after rabbi tell me just to keep going — opt out of work, efficiency, travel, technology and commerce; see where it leads.

“The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization,” Heschel writes in his prescient 1951 book, “The Sabbath,” “but in attaining some degree of independence of it.”

But I can’t pull it off. At least so far. I’m still violating the Fourth Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy… you shall not do any manner of work.”

To be clear, this column is not a plea for Shabbat Rehab.

As much as I appreciate those who have offered to guide me through an immersive Shabbat, I already know the blueprint. I’m just not following it. I still read The New York Times on my phone. I catch up on “Homeland” on the exercise bike. I call my sister. I carry a purse. I buy milk.

I decided to talk through my Shabbat crisis with the writer and scholar Judith Shulevitz, author of the captivating 2010 book, “The Sabbath World,” which explores the historical, theological and sociological underpinnings of the day of rest.

Over tea, Shulevitz kindly assures me that my ambivalence is shared. “For me, I keep the Sabbath in the spirit of knowing what I’m not doing, how far I am from the ideal Shabbat,” she says. “Nobody can get there. It’s an unachievable utopia. It’s this dream of community, oneness, wholeness, rising outside of yourself into this perfect world. In some weird way, Shabbat is about coming to terms with imperfection.”

That’s a hard thing for a neurotic perfectionist — who also happens to be an occasional realist — to hear.

Meaning: At the same time that I wish I had more Shabbat in my life, I know it’s late to put more Shabbat in my life. But I haven’t given up.

Shulevitz’s book helps, not only because she unpacks the Sabbath’s origins and evolution, but also because her initial resistance to the Sabbath’s fulfillment affirms my own.

“I still like the idea of the fully observed Sabbath more than I like observing it,” she writes. “I feel guilty about not building better fences around the day, but apparently not guilty enough. Partly, it’s because each step up in observance paralyzes me with indecision. Why follow this rule and not that one?… My religious commitments remain too abstract to overcome the inconvenience of making them.”

“Inconvenience” is one of my hurdles. It’s inconvenient to live by rules that feel antiquated: not cooking, not calling, not riding, not carrying, not “working” to the point of tearing toilet paper squares in advance.

I once attended a Jewish conference where making hot tea was prohibited, even if the water was on a burner that had been turned on before Shabbat, because the leaves in the tea bag would be transformed by the hot water in a way that constituted cooking.

The 39 main work prohibitions in the Talmud are based on the 39 types of labor used to build the Tabernacle in the desert when the Israelites left Egypt. Additional bans have evolved over the centuries, and with each chapter of modernity and technological advance, rabbinic decisors have adjudicated what is permissible or forbidden.

Yet, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg maintains that the holiday is not about injunctions. “The Sabbath is actively to achieve menuchah (rest) through self-expression, transformation, and renewal,” he writes in his classic book, “The Jewish Way.” “On this day, humans are freed and commanded to explore themselves and their relationships until they attain the fullness of being.”

It’s that “fullness of being” thing I’m missing.

Yet I don’t feel empty.

Does one need to feel the lack of Shabbat to be transformed by it? I’m not missing spirituality; I’m missing tranquility. There’s a difference.

“There is no better point of entry to the religious experience than the Sabbath,” Shulevitz writes, “for all its apparent ordinariness.

Because of its ordinariness. The extraordinariness of the Sabbath lies in its being commonplace.”

But if my Shabbat is not yet commonplace, then its ordinariness takes extraordinary effort. I’m daunted by the changes it requires.

What does enthrall me is the notion of quietude. Reading hardbound books. Being unreachable. Powering down all screens.

My family doesn’t lack interaction; we’re close and chatty despite our technology dependence. But I wish my husband and I had delineated a formal period of undistracted togetherness when our kids were small.

And friends remind me that I could use a weekly dose of stillness. I’m not the most stressed person I know, but no one would call me Zen; my mind races with a whirring list. It’s difficult to slow down.

“If you’re in the habit, it becomes natural,” Shulevitz counters. “Sometimes out of that, you have the subjective, transformative experience and sometimes you go through the moves. I don’t think the feeling comes first,” Shulevitz says. “I think the doing comes first.”

That perspective is echoed by Rabbi Lauren Berkun, a wonderful teacher and the Director of Rabbinic and Synagogue Programs at The Shalom Hartman Institute North America. She reminds me, “When Moses is presenting the Torah to the people on Mount Sinai, the Israelites say, ‘Na’aseh V’nishmah’ — ‘We will do and we will listen.’ The commentators remark on the strange order: We will first do and then listen? In Judaism there’s a certain amount of a leap of action. First, you do.”

I should post that on my bulletin board: “

First, you do.” In other words, add a Shabbat boundary a little at a time.

“Immerse yourself in this way of walking in the world,” Berkun suggests. “Then you’ll understand the meaning. It’s often the reverse of how liberal, Western Jews operate when they essentially say, ‘First convince me this is meaningful, and then I’ll do it.’”

Berkun told me her personal experience confirms that it’s never too late: She started observing Shabbat in college, after a secular childhood, and found it revelatory. “I remember that feeling of total liberation, of walking out of my dorm room without even a key in my pocket and just feeling free,” she says. “Even though I was keeping all these picayune laws, the experience of doing that was this feeling of emancipation.”

The concept of limitations as freeing sounds right to me.

If I can’t text or telephone a friend, I might see her.

If I can’t drive, I might take more walks.

If I can’t cook, I might think harder about food.

It’s easy for me to embrace Shabbat’s mitzvah of hospitality; I love hosting Friday night dinners, reciting the blessings among friends.

But I’m not always comfortable at other people’s Shabbat tables, where the Hebrew prayers are recited at breakneck speed and I don’t know all the songs; my inexperience is highlighted in a way that makes me feel embarrassed. Since I started this series, several observant Jews have generously invited my family over to share their Friday dinners. But for now, I’m more at ease in my modestly literate Sabbath ecosphere, which already does include — on closer look —these moments of luminosity:

I’ve come to anticipate Friday nights in a way that surprises me. The 6 p.m. service at my synagogue shimmers like a lighthouse at the end of each week — a reliable deceleration.

I love watching the candles lit by multiple generations on the bimah.

I review the week in depth during silent prayer, in a way I previously couldn’t justify.

I listen to “Hashkiveinu” — “Guard us from all harmful things” — and feel protected.

I close my eyes during the Shema.

I finally know Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, by heart.

I pray for the sick, and focus, as I never used to, on the weekly tally of struggle and loss.

I take a “gratitude inventory” when we sing the shechechiyanu blessing, and welcome the chance to thank God — communally — for bringing us to this moment.

I want this mindfulness in my life. I’d go so far as to say I’ve come to need it. As Shulevitz writes, “We all look for a Sabbath, whether or not that’s what we call it.”

Berkun encourages me to commit, even if the rest of my family doesn’t come along right away. “It is possible to be a lone soldier,” she says. “Whether the people around you are doing it as well is secondary.”

I recall a challenge Maria Popova wrote on her Brain Pickings blog: “Most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that busy is a decision and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity.”

Presence over productivity. Decide not to be busy.

Shulevitz told me she still struggles with her Shabbat practice, invoking theologian Franz Rosenzweig’s reply when asked whether he put on tefillin: “Not yet.”

“I’m still in the ‘not yet,’” she says.

Me too.


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