Sketches of Shabbat

by Simon Shear

There’s a scene in Collateral – Michael Mann’s atmospheric 2004 thriller – in which the owner of a jazz club, a musician himself, tells of the time he played alongside Miles Davis.

How did he fare? The club owner’s exact description can’t be repeated in a family blog, but the upshot is that no one sounds good playing next to the legend Miles Davis.

It’s a plausible position. Miles Davis, the charismatic innovator who changed the face of jazz, whose lightning presence on the stage surged even through a pair of tinny speakers. How could you sound good next to him? Why did the other players even bother showing up?

Plausible, but wrong. When Miles played, he radiated enough charismatic electricity to awaken Frankenstein’s monster, a jolt running cool and hot through every member of the band. When other musicians played with Miles, they came alive, as a soloist and as part of an ensemble.

As a band leader, he wasn’t the virtuoso who forced his collaborators into bit players in his vanity project, or the unassuming nebbish who might as well have stayed in bed and let the artists do their own thing. Neither “leading from behind” nor hogging the limelight, Miles was somehow the star of that stage, but at the same time the brightest point of stellar light in a sublime constellation of his own making. Playing next to Miles, you sounded better than ever.

It is said that Shabbat is a mystical union of the realms above and below. That on one day a week, in some profound sense, heaven and earth meet.

As someone who spends his day writing advertorial copy about low-fat yoghurt or whatever, I can’t begin to understand what that means. But it’s always struck me as an odd notion that on Shabbat, we receive an additional soul, a transcendent infusion of holiness of such profound mystical refinement that we’d have to meditate in an abandoned cave over a passage of the Zohar until flames emerge from our ears to even begin to comprehend its mystery. Yet we spend the day shovelling cholent into our faces.

We are commanded to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy, and we do it through bread, wine, song and what our rabbi euphemistically calls marital relations.

We understand that, on Shabbat, our festivities are not simply about engagement with the corporeal, but they’re not not basic physical acts, either. So, what gives?

It’s a truism that rules confer meaning. Two people can kick a ball across a field, and it doesn’t mean anything more than the immediate facts about the position of a piece of plastic on a patch of grass. But, once you impose the rules of football, the position of the ball at any given time takes on a very precise significance within an agreed system of meaning. One team has or loses possession, the ball is in or out of play, when the ball crosses into a demarcated area, under defined conditions, a goal is awarded.

If that’s insufficiently lofty, think of famous principal conductor Herbert Von Karajan ascending to the podium with his baton and serious hair, strictly demarcating who plays when and at what tempo, converting undifferentiated noise into a Beethoven symphony.

It’s a tempting metaphor for the holiness of the day. On Shabbat, we eat and drink at specific times, in established ways, as per instruction from Above. And the spiritually minded are always comparing the universe to an orchestra. The harmony of the spheres and so on. Is Shabbat really a symphony of physical pleasure that adds up to something bigger than itself?

With the important caveat that my observations as a white English-speaking Ashkenazi man do not universalise to the Jewish experience as such – Nathan Zuckerman as the archetypal Jew – I will suggest that most of the Shabbat meals I’ve attended have been less Berlin Philharmonic and more an unruly Oompah band.

And yet. These gatherings have soul. There’s a beat. An effortless sense of warmth and communion. Or at least, there should be. A real human joy that reinforces itself. The Shabbat meals become a kind of ensemble performance that depends on the expressiveness of each of the individual guests. What I’m saying is that Shabbat, at its very best, is a kind of cosmic bebop. It’s the Miles Davis of days.

Simon Shear

Simon Shear is a writer based in Johannesburg. He is co-founder of MyTreasury.co.za, which demystifies personal finance decisions.

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