Becoming a literary critic or philosopher does not require that you change your dishes – or put your old dishes in a bathtub for three days to make them kosher.
But when my wife Leslie and I started to attend a Shabbat morning “beginners’ minyan” at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, we understood that changing our minds would also mean, eventually, changing our lives.
There were many new practices to adopt, but the biggest challenge we faced was learning to keep Shabbat – which, at the beginning, was like trying to play a game for which we did not even have the rulebook. Aside from that, in the collective consciousness of friends and family – my own grandparents from Poland were not Shabbat observant! – Shabbat was just a relic, a sign of failing to acknowledge the modern world. When I announced our “evolution” to high school friends, they reacted as if I had told them we were voluntarily entering a penitentiary.
Admittedly, sometimes it felt that way.
On Friday nights in Jerusalem in the 1990s, when we lived on the edge of the old Jerusalem neighbourhood ShaareiChesed, I’d walk down the cobblestoned streets to the GRA synagogue where another generation, seemingly another world – with long black frocks and hats – awaited. Back in our world, coming home, however, keeping Shabbat was sometimes a lonely and stressful challenge. Just marginally less isolated than we had been in our Manhattan apartment, on the birth of our first son we made a shalomzachor, a Friday night celebration before the bris. Only three people came; it was depressing.
Years later, we sought out a community, moving to a more orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood. An American neighbour from Detroit told me proudly about his Shabbat table, which he described as “the educational centrepiece of the home”. I imagined him holding forth, his children and grandchildren attentive, sitting around the table, dutifully listening.
Back at home, it was a disaster; older son and daughter rolling on the floor kicking and biting, younger girls lulling on the couch, my prepared words on the weekly Torah portion drowned out by screaming and crying, the children obviously unimpressed by my professorial aura.
So, obviously, this is not a sentimental story about how Shabbat observance immediately made us happier, or even more spiritual – no sound and light show, no fireworks, no revelation on the way to Jerusalem.
With that said, the decision to keep Shabbat was the most important decision we ever made. Shabbat is described in the Torah as an ot, a sign. And it is indeed a sign – of G-d’s covenant with Israel, but also of the possibility of a life that transcends career and ambition, that goes beyond calculating how to fulfil basic needs and desires. I won’t repeat all the clichés about “disconnecting”, but I do find it a weekly miracle that all of our kids manage to be off their devices for 25 hours, spending their Saturday afternoons with the residual technology – books.
Robert Frost once said writing poetry in free verse – without any rhyme scheme – was akin to playing tennis without a net. Shabbat provides the net, a set of guidelines that help structure time – not only the Sabbath day, but holidays, and the weekdays that intervene. Jewish thinkers will speak philosophically about sensing the “infinite” in everyday life, which can mean, less abstractly, seeking the opportunity to discover something new, unexpected in a day set aside from the others. Shabbat becomes a lesson in a different consciousness of time.
Leslie and I grew into Shabbat, which meant realising it didn’t matter that our tablecloth was not white like those of our neighbours; that Szechuan chicken is an appropriate Friday night main course; and that we could hang pictures of our children in the sukkah, not just rabbinic greats from generations past. Indeed, the laws that once seemed inconceivably restrictive transformed into a set of stage directions that left room for improvisation.
At the Shabbat table, these days, I don’t really notice if my kids are listening or not – oddly, they are all still sitting there late into the night – way after I’ve moved to the couch to flip through the pages of the latest New Yorker or a new novel from Book Depository. I am now resigned to my voice being like the baseball game in the background – the soundtrack from my childhood: sometimes, you actually pay attention. And in the end, even if you don’t, you may still end up a baseball fan.
In some circles – indeed ones I formerly occupied – talking about blessing is seen as unseemly at best, an expression of over-piety at worst. Even to my university-trained sceptical sensibility, I have to say that Shabbat, while not always perfect, has been the source of manifold family blessings. To be sure, there are sometimes (even often) arguments about who will clean the floors, scuffles about salad placement on the table, and struggles to get everyone up in the morning for shul. But, the pleasures of holding my nine-month-old grandson Gavriel in my lap, ready to make Kiddush on Friday night, while looking at the family surrounding the table, even if some are distracted or fidgety, would never have been possible – indeed would never have been imaginable – without our commitment years ago to keep Shabbat.
Studying Shakespeare and Milton, Aristotle and Locke can change your life. But only Shabbat bestows blessings.
William Kolbrener earned an MA from Oxford University and a PhD from Columbia University. He is currently a professor in the Department of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, in Israel. An internationally renowned authority on Renaissance poetry and philosophy and the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell, Kolbrener also publishes and lectures widely on Jewish life and learning. He is the author ofOpen Minded Torah.