There is a Jewish mystical tradition that holds that every Shabbat a Jew receives a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. The first time I heard that, I thought it sounded a bit excessive: I have my hands full with the soul I’ve got.
The concept of the extra soul holds that on Shabbat, we are given extra capacity because of the holiness of the day and the opportunity for learning Torah. Torah study is not just an intellectual activity, although it is certainly that. It also has the power to transform our souls. Traditionally, study on Shabbat is even more powerful: we can take in more Torah than on an ordinary day, and the Torah we take in is more potent than usual.
I confess that I’m a rational little person, and I don’t know how seriously I can take all that. If someone asked me to locate for them the mind or the soul I would have no idea where to look. I think of the mind as attached to my head and the soul to my heart, but I have no evidence for either. (Nor does it explain why I feel sick to my stomach when I feel guilt.)
However, I do experience something different about Shabbat, something that I cannot simply move to a different day. Those who are mystical will have their explanations of that, and I have my own. For me, Shabbat is the time when we, the Jewish People, build that “cathedral of time” that Rabbi Heschel wrote about in The Sabbath. Whether it is given from above or created by human beings, there is power in the intentional pause that so many Jews make as the sun sets on Friday. We stop and take a collective breath, and then for 25 hours, we simply are.
Any individual can opt out, of course, and many do. Many Jews go on to work, or to sporting events, or to the shopping mall, and they don’t feel that they are missing anything. There are Jews who have experienced Shabbat, but for whom it has been marked with the stink of deprivation (“No, you may not listen to the game,” “No, you may not color,” “No, you may not make mud pies!”) and for them, being able to make or do is an expression of freedom their Jewish souls crave.
Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I think there are many ways to be Jewish. When I think of the world on Shabbat, I think of the vast sphere of the planet revolving on its axis, and as it turns, candles light in Jerusalem in some homes. In other homes, in Tel Aviv, music plays on the radio as people enjoy their dinner. In London, a group gathers for Kabbalat Shabbat, and somewhere in Dublin, another Jew meets friends at a pub. A little later, as the sun sets in New York City, a young adult group meets for potluck in Manhattan while Chabadnikim walk home from shul with dinner guests in Brooklyn. In Cincinnati, Kabbalat Shabbat begins at the Plum Street Temple; in Denver, young families gather for Tot Shabbat. An hour later, in Berkeley, a group parks on the street near Urban Adamah where they come for singing, and prayers, and dinner; afterwards, they’ll drive home. And even later, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a few Jews light Shabbat candles and welcome the Sabbath Queen on the beach. And some simply watch the sunset and marvel at the wonder of it all.
It’s all Shabbat, and it is all authentic and good. What will happen in your life when the sun goes down for Shabbat this week? Whatever it is, I wish you Shalom.