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Hardly Working

When I told my wife that we would be observing Shabbat as the next step on my quest to become the Perfect Jew, she acted as if I had announced I was leaving the Tribe to become a Buddhist. She assured me that she would always love me and then added, “I’ll miss you.”

We’ve both always felt like the Shomer Shabbat live in a different world, one we associate with the ultra-Orthodox we’d seen as twentysomethings in Jerusalem. Back then, the weekly sounding of the Shabbat siren meant another day of forced abstention and deprivation. Buses stopped running; shops and restaurants were closed. It was a wasted day.

But I found ways to adapt. Learning that Domino’s Pizza delivered on Friday nights, my roommate and I spent our Sabbaths in front of the television, watching poorly dubbed kung fu movies as we polished off a box of wine. We even discovered a bar that sold Palestinian beer and bacon and cheese sandwiches, and close to sunrise, we stumbled drunkenly home to our apartment as the streets filled with the faithful on their way to synagogue for morning prayers.

Now, as forever-fatigued parents, my wife and I typically flop into bed well before 10:00. Since we don’t do anything on Friday nights, I reasoned, we might as well try keeping Shabbat. My wife finally agreed after I promised her that we wouldn’t spend the week tearing toilet paper in preparation for the Sabbath.

Rabbi Arthur Green, a Reconstructionist rabbi and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, seemed a little wary of my quest to become the Perfect Jew. He agreed to meet with me, but only after I had read an article he had written about sacred time and sacred space which began: “Shabbat, the day of holiness and rest, is the central religious institution of the Jewish people.”

As I absorbed his words, I realized I had brought a misguided mindset to my quest. I had worn a kippah for the shallowest external reasons, making a fashion statement rather than taking a spiritual leap. I had dunked in the mikvah because it sounded fun; I had learned to negotiate because I wanted to feel like a big shot. As for Shabbat, I had mocked it as an outmoded tradition that was strictly the domain of religious obsessives, but now I became aware that observance of the Sabbath has historically been the most obvious sign of being Jewish. By ignoring it, I was arrogantly rejecting centuries of tradition and wisdom because I was too lazy to learn what it was all about.

Much to my relief, Rabbi Green understood my concerns that Shabbat observance had been hijacked by a certain population of Jews. “That hijacking took place in the first or second century when the laws of Shabbat became very detailed. But there is no basis in the Torah for all the details of Shabbat law,” he explained. The Torah only forbids work, strictly defined as the lighting of fire and gathering of wood. Rabbi Green continued, appending that the ancient Rabbis added all of those laws to make Shabbat very exclusive and protected. But he favors a more liberal interpretation of Shabbat, and has created his own list of Shabbat dos and don’ts.

Why would a committed secularist like myself want to keep Shabbat? “We are living through one of the great ages of the speeding up of consciousness,” says the rabbi, who is Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. “Just watch kids following those little critters across the screen on videogames. The idea that we have to turn the screen off and be face-to-face and talk to live people across a table might be revolutionary a generation from now.”

Shabbat, as I learned, is a social institution, built into Judaism so that we have time to rest and reconstitute ourselves. It’s less about denial than it is about reward. At heart, it’s a weekly holiday in celebration of the creation of the world, and it is meant to be rich and enjoyed and to have a different texture from the rest of the week.

I would need that rest, since getting ready for Shabbat was the most stressful event since my son’s bris. It took me nearly five hours to shop and prepare enough food for Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch, to tape over light switches so that I wouldn’t inadvertently break the Sabbath, set timers for lights, craft a spicebox out of tinfoil and cloves, hide my telephones, and tear myself away from the alternate universe of the Internet. Lastly, I had to remember to turn my oven down to 200° and leave it on, so that we would have warm food at lunch the next day. I took a shot at convincing my wife that I wasn’t allowed to change diapers on Shabbat. But she wasn’t persuaded of any strict halachic basis for that.

When Friday night fell, something amazing happened: I heard silence, true silence, for the first time in a long time, as if my house had taken a breath and let out a deep sigh. We enjoyed a quiet dinner with friends, and my wife and her college friend geeked out like a couple of day-school veterans and sang Hebrew songs after the meal. I resisted the temptation to spin my favorite Rancid CD to drown out their warbling.

As we slid into bed, I remembered what Rabbi Green had said about having sex on Shabbat: it’s actually a double mitzvah. To clarify, singles: Beer-goggled hook-ups at the local bar don’t count. This two-for-one special only applies to married couples. In the darkness of our bedroom, I had no difficulty fulfilling that mitzvah. Without the distractions of my nightly podcast and my wife’s New York Times crossword, I followed Rabbi Green’s advice to the letter, and I felt, for the first time, like the Perfect Jew.

As we walked to our local synagogue the next morning, it was as if we had stepped out of history, out of a woodcut etching; a tall slim kippah-wearing Jew and his wife and baby, trudging timelessly to synagogue. Though Rabbi Green had said we were not required to pray on Shabbat, we felt that we should visit our local synagogue for the first time.

It took over an hour for a minyan to gather in the traditional egalitarian shul, and aside from two or three others, we were the youngest people in the joint by almost 50 years. And as we sat listening to the charmingly archaic Ashkenazi pronunciation of the rabbi, I realized that though time may slow down today,
the hours and days will keep moving forward and before long these few faithful souls would be gone and the synagogue would stand empty. I didn’t want that to happen, because somehow I knew I would be losing a small part of myself. Though we had never met these people before, we were greeted as family, and I was invited up to the bima, to say the blessing over the Torah portion. It was the first time I had done so since my bar mitzvah.

When we arrived home, the computer inside our goyish oven had turned itself off, not understanding that we Jews actually like to eat lukewarm chicken and potatoes at Shabbat luncheon.

And as the day came to an end and we smelled the spices intended to bring us back to the regular week, I realized that in observing Shabbat I had not bound myself to meaningless regulations; on the contrary, I had unbound myself from the siren call of commerce, technology, and pop culture. I felt that I could think without the static of the modern world filling my head like a hive of buzzing bees.

A week later, as I found myself navigating my diaper-laden supersized shopping cart through the hellish morass of Costco’s Saturday rush hour, I felt a longing for that inner peace I had discovered within me. I tried to remember the words I had recited on the bima just a week before, hoping for a booster shot of Shabbat serenity. But they were already lost to me.

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