I had a fascinating conversation with a friend the other day. I was saying how much I look forward to Shabbat, and she asked, “Are you shomer Shabbos?”. For those who don’t speak Jew, someone who is shomer Shabbat (or Shabbos, to pronounce it like an Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jew) does not transgress any of the Sabbath prohibitions. There are 39 categories of these, all related to constructive or destructive acts, and they have been interpreted to mean everything from cooking to flipping a light switch to riding in a car.
I told my friend that I am, indeed, shomer Shabbat, and that it’s a requirement in the rabbinical school. I was surprised to hear that she is not, as she’s someone I knew to be quite observant in other ways. She eats in uncertified (what other people call “unkosher”) restaurants, though she sticks to vegetarian food, and I know she often attends daily prayer services.
When I asked her if she minded my asking why she is not shomer Shabbat at this time, she said, “I really, really want to be! It’s just way too hard.”
It’s funny, but I never thought of becoming shomer Shabbat as being a difficult process. It was gradual for me; as recently as two years ago, I took the bus to synagogue and got manicures on Friday nights, but I kept the positive mitzvot [commandments] like going to services and having guests for Shabbat dinner.
All it took for me was one Shabbat spent with an ultra-Orthodox family for me to realize how much I needed Shabbat. Yes, needed. Twenty-five hours away from anything stressful, even something as simple as wondering whether I’d remembered to switch off the hall light, was a revelation. Now, Shabbat is the center of my week and the center of my life. The meals with friends, the hours in synagogue, the long walk home (I live almost an hour from my shul), the board games and singing in the homes of strangers and friends…I don’t know what I’d do without it.
There are practical challenges, I suppose. It took a while for me to explain to my parents why I’d be unreachable for twenty-five hours, but I started calling them just before I lit my Shabbat candles, and they get it now. I missed going out with friends on Friday nights, but now they know to come to my home for a delicious dinner before they head out to the club. When I’m away from home, I’m often in a position where I’m not allowed to carry things to and from synagogue (long story…another time), and I have to hide my keys. I have to arrange exactly where and when to meet my friends so that we don’t miss each other, since we can’t call or text.
In other ways, though, American society makes this easier than at any time in history. The technological marvels of the slow-cooker and the light timer alone have made life on Shabbat infinitely easier for Jews. The institution of the weekend (a concept only about 80 years old) means that most people never face the quandary of explaining to the boss why they have to miss a workday every week. True, Jews live increasingly far from synagogues and traditional Jewish neighborhoods, but those who care about observing Shabbat know where to seek their real estate, and Jews can, in most places, be free of fear of harassment on their way to and from shul and meals. To a Jew a hundred years ago, any one of these things would be a miracle.
Without community, Shabbat can be isolating. As a convert, Shabbat when I’m at home with my parents, many miles from the nearest synagogue, is sometimes heartbreaking. But for me, these experiences just underscore for me how vital it is to seek out, and create when necessary, beautiful and warm Jewish communities of friends and, I hope, eventually a Jewish family of my own.
Do you have questions about Shabbat observance? What was most difficult? Do your experiences match my own, or am I way off base?