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How To: Explain Shabbat to a Non-Jew

How To: Explain Shabbat to a Non-Jew

Living in Iowa, Dublin and Nashville, I have had plenty of explanatory conversations about Shabbat. When people want to have plans on Friday night, or wonder why I don’t go to football games on Saturday morning, or just want to know why I won’t turn on the bathroom light on occasion, I end up having to explain Shabbat beyond the standard, “It’s a day of rest.” In situations like this, one can always turn to Jew FAQ, which provides easy-to-understand explanations of all kinds of Jewish traditions and laws on levels from the basic to the more advanced. If you feel comfortable sending someone to the Jew FAQ explanation, it’s excellent. But here’s what I usually say:

On Shabbat, we refrain from doing anything that’s creative. Because we’re honoring the creation of the world, and the rest that followed it, we ourselves rest, and stop from our generally creative habits. We don’t write. We don’t draw. We don’t cook, or play music. We also don’t do some things that wouldn’t necessarily seem creative, but that are on a technical level. For instance, driving a car is creative in that sparks are created in the engine. Turning on a light creates a circuit.

But Shabbat isn’t about refraining from creating so much as it is about resting and taking some time to be rejuvenated. Talk to people who have kept Shabbat for a while and they don’t complain about all the things they can’t do: watch TV, cook dinner, go online, listen to or play music. They’ll likely talk about how refreshing and relaxing the day is: how they get to take a nap, spend time with family and friends, play board games and eat a good meal with fun and interesting people. Shabbat seems restrictive on first analysis, but most people who observe Shabbat don’t see it that way. For further reading on the rockin’ qualities of Shabbat, check out the amazing (and quite short) book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. It’s a quick read, but really intense, and a wonderful introduction to Heschel’s work.

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