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Seeing what’s in front of us – Shabbat and the key to happiness

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

A key ingredient of happiness is to live in the moment. To open our eyes to what lies right in front of us. To open our hearts to the wonders all around us.

During the rush of the week, the Talmud says that we lose part of our eyesight, which is then restored when we say kiddush on Friday night, glancing at the Shabbat candles and the wine as we do so. We learn from this that Shabbat enables us to see the world with new eyes - with perspective, clarity and wisdom, which can be lost in the rush of our lives.

Suddenly, we can appreciate the deep flavour of the wine and the warm glow of the candles. When we rush around, living life at speed, we miss out on so much. On Shabbat, we slow down, the frenzy ceases, and our lives come into focus.

Shabbat teaches us to truly appreciate the wonder of our world; to savour the pleasures created for us with so much Divine love, to grasp the power and beauty of our most precious relationships, to feel the sublime gift of life itself. It is the day we are able to taste the sweetness of this world and celebrate it fully through the power of appreciation – the gateway to happiness.

On Shabbat, we set aside the natural human drive to acquire, and allow ourselves the joy of appreciating what we have. As Pirkei Avot teaches, a truly wealthy person is someone “who takes joy in their portion”.

The Talmud records a revealing conversation between the Roman Caesar and Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya. The Caesar asked the Rabbi, “Why does your food smell so good on Shabbat?” To which the sage replied, there is a very special spice we put into the food, called Shabbat. Caesar then asked him if he could have some of this special ingredient, and Rabbi Yehoshua answered that only one who keeps Shabbat can enjoy its unique flavor. To really experience the world to its fullest, we must taste Shabbat.

The laws of Shabbat force us to slow down because we can’t do the things that distract and pressure us. The pace of the day enables us to enjoy this world. We can take our gifts for granted. But once a week, we pause, breathe deeply and savour life’s blessings. It is a day of giving thanks to God for creating such a beautiful world. It is a day of enjoying and appreciating the simple pleasures life has to offer - being with loved ones, discovering Divine wisdom, savouring delicious food, sleeping or taking a walk. By slowing down, we appreciate everything on a much deeper level.

Over the years, I’ve heard from so many people experiencing Shabbat for the first time, and with it the intense joy of seeing the world anew, of appreciating what they have.

Robbie Kirshner from Sharon, Massachusetts:

“At Shabbat dinner on Friday night, the atmosphere was charged with ecstatic celebration through song, prayer, great food, and community. I am incredibly grateful for being introduced to the sacred experience of Shabbat. On Saturday evening, I walked outside to gaze at the magnificent canopy of stars, marveling at God’s creation and reflecting on all that I’d learnt and felt over the past 25 hours.”

Nicola Miltz from my own hometown, Johannesburg, captures the vivid sights and sounds and her own heightened senses at a picnic she attended on Shabbat:

“There were hundreds of people from every nook and cranny of the surrounding suburbs, gathered at the park in clumps on blankets to pass the time in an Eden-like paradisiacal garden of delight. It was as if time itself had stopped and children moved in slow motion to the sounds of the softly running stream beneath the comforting weeping willows. This was Shabbos. This was emotional connectedness. This was special. There was no way anyone was left unmoved.”

Then there’s Beverly Cartagena of San Salvador, El Salvador, who attended a Shabbaton at the city’s Beit Yisrael synagogue. Her recollections are exquisitely beautiful:

The coins clink in a special box, and two hands usher in the light of two candles that illuminate the hall. The air is suffused with the aroma of fresh bread and delicious spices that have seasoned the dinner. The multi-sensations of the meal are about to start. A sweet Kiddush wine awakens the palate, and finally comes the time to taste the soft challah bread. The banquet is open. The table is fit for kings and queens. After the meal, we give thanks to the Creator for everything received. And then it is time to sleep – to enjoy the sweet, unburdened Sabbath slumber.

The next morning again the synagogue opens its doors, as we imbibe the depth and meaning of the prayers and the words of the Torah. After the service, wine, bread and the most exquisite delicacies again enthrall our palates, and then it is time to luxuriate in the most pleasant rest – quiet in our own private space; or attending classes and sailing in an immense sea of knowledge; or simply conversing with others, enjoying their company.

These are the day’s delights. A day of pleasure – the pleasure of being free, the pleasure of being Jewish, the pleasure of simply being.

When we rush through life we can lose our spiritual eyesight. Shabbat slows us down so that we can see the world with fresh eyes, acutely aware of the beauty around us, appreciating everything as a gift from God. Living with appreciation, savouring our blessings, feeling grateful for everything we have – that is the secret to happiness.

We at the Shabbat Project are always on the lookout for inspiring stories from those who have participated in the project. If you have a Shabbat story or an experience you’d like to share, we would love to hear about it. Email partners@theshabbosproject.com


Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of The Shabbat Project.

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