Being a Shabbat Beginner is hard.
Are you a Shabbat Beginner? Then you know: When you’re new to the practice of Shabbat – the traditional Jewish day of rest given to us in the Torah and expanded upon in the Talmud and later texts – it can be daunting.
You may fear that:
- It’s impossible to do Shabbat right if you weren’t raised with it.
- All the rules and restrictions are so overwhelming. It makes rest feel like more work!
- Shabbat will put a strain on your relationships.
- You already feel inadequate in your Jewish practice. Doing Shabbat wrong will make you feel worse.
- Shabbat is not economically practical for everyone.
- You don’t have access to the resources or community that would make Shabbat worthwhile.
But if you are able to break through the fear, frustration, and FOMO (fear of missing out) that are, for the most part, all in your head, you can enjoy this Gift from the Jewish tradition and reap the full benefits of taking a day off from the cares of the world.
It is your time to unwrap the Gift of Rest and learn to unplug in order to recharge. First, though, we have to bust a few myths that may be holding you back.
Myth #1: It’s impossible to do Shabbat right if you weren’t raised with it.
FACT: There is no single “right” way to do Shabbat, only a common intention and orientation toward a day of peace, unlike the other days of the week. Each of us is invited and challenged to make the best of it. We do the best we can do, regardless of when we start or how much we know going in.
Yes, there are many customs and features of a traditional Shabbat you’ll learn and see are common from household to household and from community to community. Yes, these are spelled out in the Talmud, Jewish law codes, and other helpful guides.
But for the Shabbat beginner…Start small.
This week, light candles on Friday night. That’s a good start.
Next week, or a few weeks later, have a dinner that’s a bit better that your usual dinner. Try a new recipe, or bring home a new dessert. Maybe invite some friends over. Maybe. Or try that another week.
Ever been to a synagogue on Friday night or Saturday morning? Try it next week. If you like it, go back. If you don’t like it, try another synagogue, or take a week off.
My point is: Don’t try to do everything associated with Shabbat at once with the goal of doing Shabbat “right.”
Of course, it is easier to incorporate more aspects of Shabbat at one time if you were raised with it. But if you are learning to enjoy Shabbat as an adult, there is no more certain way to be overwhelmed and discouraged, to the point you ultimately give up, than to try to adopt all the practices you know of at once.
Start small, where you are, with what you have, one new practice at a time. The first step toward the peace Shabbat promises you is patience and forgiveness toward yourself as you learn something new, one step at a time.
Myth #2: All the rules and restrictions are so overwhelming. It makes rest feel like more work!
FACT: The rules against creative work and transactions are there to protect your rest and replace transactional time with relational time.
Think of Shabbat as a walled garden, perhaps even a secret garden within the grounds of an old castle. If there was no wall, there would be no garden. The garden would be overused, trampled, and picked over, just like the land around it. Its peace would disappear in the hubbub and traffic of daily life. Within a wall, however, it may blossom undisturbed and delight those who visit it with care and in peace.
The various restrictions observed within a traditional Shabbat are like bricks in the wall that preserve the garden, not their for their own sake, or to make you suffer and feel deprived, but to safeguard the peace to which you are entitled.
Once the bricks are in place, set by your resolve to leave work behind, completing what you can and letting go of what you can’t complete (for now), you may enter the garden unburdened by the cares of the world. Your cares will be waiting for you, to be sure, when you leave the garden again. For now, enjoy the flowers, the fragrances, the stars above or the sunshine on your face, and the company of those who have joined you.
Yes, you may have to lift many bricks to build the wall, but once they are in place, you no longer have to carry them, and they stand ready to safeguard your peace.
Myth #3: Shabbat will put a strain on your relationships.
FACT: Shabbat is one of the most effective ways for strengthening bonds among your family and friends.
I hear complaints like this all the time:
“I love Shabbat, but its hard to do when my significant other doesn’t want to cooperate.”
“A traditional Shabbat is impossible with modern kids. How can I get them to love Shabbat when taking away their Playstation makes me the bad guy?”
“Shabbat is a holiday invented by single men; it places all the burden of hosting and childcare on women in order for men to have a day off.”
I hear you, and all of these complaints are real and valid. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I want you to look at these complaints, though, and start thinking of them as excuses rather than reasons to not get the most out of a traditional Shabbat.
It is absolutely true that a lot of the literature about how wonderful Shabbat is, and how to do it right, came from men who didn’t have to do the cooking, cleaning, hosting, and childcare to make it so wonderful for everyone else. As a man with a family, I own this, and I’m grateful for all the hard work my wife puts in every week to make Shabbat a wonderful family vacation from the day-to-day grind.
As someone who has tried to be Shabbat-observant in a number of different relationship contexts – as a married man, as a divorced dad, as an actively-dating single guy, and (bless God) a married man with children once again – I know first-hand: Celebrating Shabbat in the context of a relationship with someone on a different path can be extremely difficult AND be a significant source of friction.
Given all that, I also want to tell you that celebrating Shabbat is not merely possible in the context of your current relationships; it is critical to helping those relationships endure and thrive long-term. In fact, it can be the best thing that ever happened to strengthen the bond be between you, your family, and your friends.
Haven’t you longed to trade screen-time for face-time? (Not to be confused with FaceTime.)
What if family mealtime stopped being an asynchronous pitstop, everyone microwaving their own thing between appointments, activities, and homework, or work brought home, but instead became an oasis of reconnection after a busy week?
What if you you could play a board game with your kids or spend a romantic afternoon with your partner, unburdened by past things undone, unpressed by future concerns, at least for the moment?
This is what’s possible for you and your loved ones on Shabbat. If you’re willing to experiment with it, and you ask – don’t insist – that others experiment with you, I promise you it will create unforgettable memories and build bonds that last a lifetime.
Myth #4: You already feel inadequate in your Jewish practice. Doing Shabbat wrong will make you feel worse.
FACT: The point of Shabbat is to make you feel whole, not insufficient.
While it is true that there are a lot of rules, traditions, rituals, and opportunities associated with a traditional approach to the spiritual practice of Shabbat, please do not get stuck for one second by thinking: If I don’t do all of it, I might as well do none of it, because my feeble attempt will not be a “real” Shabbat.
Look, daily life gives us enough opportunities to feel like a chump – ignorant, inadequate, not good enough, smart enough, or competent enough to get by. Shabbat is supposed to be the antidote to that…not an extra dose of this poison for your self-esteem.
Shabbat is supposed to be like this: Okay, it’s Friday night. Some good stuff happened this week, and so did some bad stuff. I was up to the challenge on many fronts, and I failed on others. But right now I’m going to cherish my victories, be grateful for what worked, and as for what didn’t….well, I’m letting go of that for the next 24 hours or so. I’ll get back to work after that. For now, the world is complete as it is, I am whole as I am, and I commit to luxuriating in that fact and celebrating that until the sun goes down tomorrow. I’ll face the week ahead fully relaxed, recharged, re-committed to repairing myself and the world. But right now: I am enough, and I have enough.
For now, Shabbat Beginner, whether you are doing Shabbat right is less important than the fact you are doing it.
Whether you are abiding by all the rules and taking advantage of all the opportunities is less important than whether you are taking a deep breath, lighting the candles, and seeing what happens when you give yourself a day of rest, wholeness, and peace, whatever that looks like for you right now.
Are you doing Shabbat dinner right? Who cares. It’s fun anyway.
Are you doing Shabbat services right? No big deal. Everyone is learning to do better.
Is Shabbat available and effective for you regardless of your level of learning and your quality of practice? Absolutely. Let’s get started. Together.
Myth #5: Shabbat is not economically practical for everyone.
FACT: Shabbat is free, and so are you.
This has a couple of pieces to it. First, some people think that you have to go all out: prepare a massive banquet, buy special candlesticks for lighting and silver goblets for Kiddush (the blessings with wine that declare the holiness of Shabbat), get nicer clothes to wear to a synagogue, and so on.
Yes, doing these things makes Shabbat special, unless your inability to do them (yet) keeps you from doing Shabbat at all.
But more pressing than that, people think, “I can’t do Shabbat because my job makes me work on Friday night, or during the day on Saturday, or maybe both. And if I can’t do the whole thing, why bother?”
First, the expense thing: It is considered praiseworthy to stretch a little on Shabbat, go the extra mile to make things nice, even if it means holding back a little on how you live during the rest of the week. So that’s one solution: What can you cut back on during the week to make Shabbat a little more special?
But beyond that, Jewish law throughout the ages has necessarily been intended to apply to poor people as well as rich people. Why? Because for most of Jewish history, Jews have not only been marginalized socially, but also economically, meaning: For the vast majority of our history, most Jews have been poor.
So the most important thing: Extravagance (especially if it will make you suffer later) is not essential or required. What’s required is to make Shabbat noticeably different, and maybe at least a teensy-weensy bit nice than usual, and that’s enough.
Second, and I hear this a lot: “That sounds nice, rabbi, but I work Friday and Saturday, so I can’t celebrate Shabbat AND keep my job, which I really need.”
I hear you, I’ve been there, and now I have one question for you:
Are you in the wilderness, or are you in Egypt?
There’s a provision in a Jewish law that states: If you are lost in the wilderness, and you’ve lost track of what day of the week it is, start counting days from where you are. On the seventh day, consider it Shabbat, and likewise every seventh day thereafter, for as long as necessary. Once you rejoin society, and find out what day of the week it is by the calendar, then observe Shabbat on the proper day with everyone else.
Historically, our sages have recognized that we can’t be held responsible for situations that are truly out of our control. If knowledge or access prevents you for celebrating a holy day at the proper time, are you then barred from holy engagement?
Start where you are, with what you have, assured by the knowledge that some day, when you have access to celebrating Shabbat on the proper day, when you have greater choice over your work schedule, you’ll be able to make a holy choice to celebrate Shabbat when the broader community does.
Punchline: If the only day you can do Shabbat (without starving to death) is Tuesday, well…Shabbat shalom on Tuesday!
But this raises perhaps a harder question: What if you’re not in the wilderness, but instead, you’re in Egypt?
In the grand narrative of the Jewish people, Egypt represents a place of slavery. Our people first entered Egypt out of necessity: During a famine in our Promised Land, our ancestor Joseph paved the way for his family to reside in Egypt in prosperity and comfort, thus escaping starvation and annihilation.
Trouble was, about the time we got comfortable with – even depended on – this compromise, a new king arose over Egypt who forgot how Joseph had saved his kingdom. This king’s most practical, profitable course of action was to enslave us. Our time and productive potential were no longer our own, and we were suddenly put in the position once again of catering to his demands, or else starving (or being beaten) to death.
This, for me, is the definition of slavery: Being robbed of control of our time and productive potential, on pain of deprivation or even death.
Not for nothing, biblical references to Shabbat (from the Ten Commandments, all the way down to the Kiddush blessings we say over wine on Shabbat) mention two things: The creation of the world, the completeness of which God marked with the capstone of a day of rest, and liberation from slavery in Egypt.
The message: We celebrate Shabbat not only to honor God and the wholeness of God’s creation, but also to declare to the world (including our bosses) that we are a free people, and free people deserve to take at least one day off per week.
In today’s hyperconnected, hyper-competitive world, this is a radical, perhaps insurrectionary act.
You are a free person. If you work seven days a week, that is a choice you have made. Workings six days a week is also a choice you can make. When you’re ready, and if your brave, picking which day you are free is also a choice you can make. When you have that courage to commit, I encourage you to pick the day that maximizes your ability to connect with other free people like yourself: Choose Shabbat, and choose the Shabbat where your friends are waiting for you: Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Again, there may be a hundred compelling practical reasons not to make this choice yet. My intention is to remind you that you are free, and when you have that choice in the future, the best choice is waiting for you. Your Jewish friends will be there to welcome you.
Myth #6: I don’t have access to the resources or community that would make Shabbat worthwhile.
FACT: Shabbat is ready for you to enjoy right now, where you are and what you have nearby.
Another common complaint I hear:
“I would love to celebrate Shabbat, but the closest (synagogue, challah bakery, kosher market, or even Jewish person!) is 45 minutes, 1 hour, or even 2 hours away from me. How, then can I celebrate Shabbat in a traditional way?”
The fact is, whether pursuing economic opportunity or fleeing the torches and pitchforks of oppression, Jews have found themselves settling all over the world. Sometimes, this meant living far away from the closest Jewish community center, synagogue, kosher butcher, or Chinese restaurant. Jews from Siberia to Maine to Alaska have asked the question: How do I have Shabbat dinner at a reasonable hour, when we can’t light candles until after my kids’ bedtime?
I can’t give you the exact answer to that questions right now – because every person’s situation is different – but I will tell you: We’ve always been able to find an answers that allow us to keep Shabbat with both practicality and faithfulness to the tradition.
I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a while, and it was common practice that when holidays were coming up, we’d get together and make a community order for kosher meat, that would arrive packed in dry ice from the nearest kosher butcher: in Atlanta, Georgia.
Also, although the Knoxville bakers and supermarkets didn’t carry challah – a special variety of bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat – there was one lady in town who made challah every week for everyone who asked her. You just had to find the lady and get on her challah-baking list.
The first step, of course, is to commit to the path of growing Shabbat observance. If you can’t find Shabbat or Havdalah candles in your local store, today you can order them on Amazon. Same with challah, wine, or grape juice.
Don’t have a Kiddush cup? The rabbis say: Just use the nicest cup you have.
That is enough.
You are enough.
Start where you are with what you have.
And the same goes for access to Jewish community. If you don’t have any Jewish or Jewcurious people in your town (you might be surprised, if you do a little searching), then connect with people online. This is an excellent place to start to share your journey with others like you until you find people locally, or have occasion to relocate to a community that supports your interests and your journey.
Just remember: Shabbat is available (and effective) for you wherever you are in the world, and whatever resources you already have access to.
Seriously, do you have fewer synagogues and kosher butchers nearby than Adam and Eve did? or Abraham and Sarah? Or the people I know who fled danger in Europe and landed in Knoxville, Tennessee?
I’m willing to bet you can make Shabbat special wherever you are.
FACT: Shabbat Beginners already have what it takes to get started.
Shabbat Beginner, thank you for reading this post. If you take away nothing else from what you have read, please be clear on this:
You already have what it takes to make the joy, peace, and holiness of Shabbat a part of your life.
First, you have the intention. That’s the most important thing.
You have enough resources, and you ARE enough as a person.
You will learn as you practice, and you will grow as you learn.
For all my Shabbat Beginners out there, I can’t wait to see what your growth in practicing Shabbat does for you, your relationships, your home, and your community.
One favor I ask: If you’ve found this article helpful AT ALL, then chances are, someone else will, too. PLEASE share it with the people you care about, especially a Shabbat Beginner.