Shabbat UK – A Grump’s Eye View
1. This week thousands of people in the UK, and hundreds of thousands world-wide, took part in what looks set to be an annual event to bring normally non-observant Jews closer to Shabbat observance and community participation.
2. What could possibly be wrong with that?
3. Nothing, except … that it may possibly give some people a misleading view of what Shabbat observance is about.
4. The Talmud records that if every Jew keeps Shabbat twice consecutively, the Messiah will come.
5. Why require two Shabbatot? The organisers of this week’s Shabbat UK will probably be able to testify to how difficult it is to engage lots of people to do it just once!
6. The point is, that Shabbat observance is not about the Shabbat day itself, it is about how our Shabbat influences the week that follows and is shaped by the week that precedes it.
7. To come together once a year to bake challos, try not to drive to shul, and invite guests to the Shabbat table, is all terrific stuff – excellent for the community, great for engagement, and simply a lovely experience: but it’s not Shabbat.
8. Shabbat is a continuum: on Friday night it reflects a softening retreat from the harsh realities of the previous 6 days (hence the word “boh” in the feminine singular in the Friday night prayers); on Shabbat morning it reflects a strength of purpose to concentrate on a day of spiritual re-charging (hence the word “bo” – masculine singular); on Shabbat afternoon it reflects a preparation for the 6 days to follow and connection with the endless series of 7-day cycles that are the essence of Shabbat observance (hence the word “bam” – plural form – even in those nuschaot which do not use the word “Shabbatot” at that point).
9. Shabbat is not a novelty, or a single event of high spiritual excitement. Shabbat is a way of life, a participation in a cycle that repeats itself endlessly and sublimely, irrespective of whether we keep it fully, partly or not at all. “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”: this famous epigram is about Shabbat observance as an individual expression of a person’s unshakeable relationship with God, and not about Shabbat as an opportunity for community growth.
10. So a lovely idea, and a lovely occasion: but let people who have tasted it remember that they have not yet tasted the real thing – that will come if they put their ‘phones down and turn off the television and put away the car next week, and the week after, and the week after … And as the Talmud says, once all Jews have observed a week with a Shabbat at each end, enriched by spiritual preparation and crowned by spiritual fulfilment, then the Messiah will come; or, rather, he will already be here.