What does “Goot Shabbes!” mean?

Goot SHAB-bes, more properly transliterated, Gut Shabbes, is how a Jew says, “Good Sabbath” in Yiddish. It is the equivalent of “Shabbat Shalom” in Hebrew.

Yiddish is a Jewish language used originally by Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. There are many Jews in the United States who speak at least a little Yiddish.

What’s the proper response to Gut Shabbes? That’s easy: just say Gut Shabbes right back!

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Shabbat Sababa!

Image: Children dancing (Shutterstock / CherryMary)

Shabbat is nearly here. I’m getting excited, because I love the shift from yom chol (ordinary day) to yom kadosh (holy day.) Life doesn’t so much slow down as it shifts.

When I was a student rabbi, the first child I met in my first congregation was a little kid who would hear the word “Shabbat” and begin twirling and dancing and laughing. She was an enchanting child – and she’s off to college this coming fall. Time passes.

As a toddler, Rebekah had a deep understanding of Shabbat. She knew that whatever was going on, Shabbat was happy and good. Shabbat was something to celebrate. Her parents had taught her that by celebrating it themselves, having a special meal, singing songs, and enjoying it themselves. All I had to do was say, “Shabbat shalom!” and she would take it from there!

At the congregation I attend today, there’s a monthly children’s service they call “Shabbat Sababa.” Sababa is Arabic for “cool” and it is a common loan-word that Hebrew speakers use. The kids go to this very noisy, celebratory service and learn that Shabbat is about joy.

That’s really all one needs to know about Shabbat – joy, release, happiness. The command that we rejoice is a reminder to find something to bless in the detritus of ordinary life. We slog through the days, horrified by things in the news, depressed by other things, but on Friday afternoon, I start looking for something to bless, something to give thanks for. It is in itself a spiritual discipline, and it is simple enough that a toddler can get a grip on it.

So I say to you, as Shabbat is about to begin, “Shabbat sababah!” May your Shabbat be cool. May your Shabbat be filled with whatever blessing you can find to hang onto. If life has dealt you bad cards this week, throw them in the air for a few hours – it’s Shabbat! For those of us in pain, let’s take our meds and be grateful for whatever good they do. For those who are in mourning, reach out and touch the remaining people in your life. For those who are numb from tragedy, allow the helpers to give you whatever help they can. For those who are exhausted, let Shabbat give you permission to rest, or to ask for what you need in order to rest.

Sadness is all around. The world is a mess. There is plenty to complain about, plenty to criticize. But on Friday at sundown: it’s time to count our blessings, to celebrate that there is still oxygen to breathe, to touch the hands that will reach back to touch ours. It’s Shabbat.

What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

The Map Home: Why I Attend Services

Image: Rufous hummingbird feeding on Crocosmia flowers. (birdiegal/Shutterstock)

My health problems have made me less regular at services than I’d like. Last week I was falling into a dreadful funk: I was cranky, I was fed up with the world, I had made a couple of stupid mistakes that were really bothering me, and generally, I was an unhappy camper. I decided I had to get to services, despite the aches.

 

Some people wonder why anyone goes to services. We make the trip to shul, we sit in the pews, we see friends, we sing songs, and we say the same prayers every time. What is there that heals my soul?

Truth is, I never know what I’m looking for: I just know that I will find it in the service. There might be a line in a prayer that I haven’t noticed in a while that speaks directly to my troubles of the moment. We say a lot of prayers on Friday night, and I’ve said all of them thousands of times, but if I come with an open heart, there will be something that fits my need.

This past week it was a line in the prayer that caught my eye while we were reading something else:

Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.

I realized why I’d been feeling so cranky: my world of late has constricted terribly. I’m busy with tech problems at work, problems that have to be solved but don’t really interest me. I’m frustrated with chronic pain. I’m frustrated by the news: I don’t like much of what I see on the TV or hear on the radio. I realized that I had allowed myself to “walk sightless among miracles.”

I can fix that, I thought.

On Sunday, I did my work, but I took time to go out in the yard and just look around me. I saw the hummingbirds doing their work. I saw my dog examine a bug. I saw a hawk flying high above the hillside. I felt a lot better.

Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I spent the time I might have spent catching up on news catching up on the hummingbirds. I had to return to the tech problems, and the physical problems, and all the other stuff, but I did it with a lighter heart.

That’s what services do for me. They remind me how to return to myself.

Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)

 

Shabbat: A Time to Check In

Image: Two children’s hands linked by their little fingers. One has chipped nail polish. (cherylholt/pixabay)

One of Judaism’s profoundest lessons is the importance of human relationship. Our Tanakh begins with the story of a lonely God, who arranges a world full of plants and animals and human beings. Then God realizes that “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and God creates an ezer, a companion to ease the human’s loneliness.  (Ezer shares a root with the verb la’azor, meaning “to help, assist, succor.”)

Adam and Eve ate together from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they were expelled from the Garden together. One of their children murdered his brother, but their names were linked forever: Cain and Abel.

The stories in the Bible are stories about relationships: Noah and God, Abram and God, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Rachel and Leah were the siblings who didn’t kill each other, although I have wondered if it ever crossed their minds. Was Jacob ever in a genuine relationship with anyone, or did he stand by and play them off, one against the other, first his wives and then his children?

Not all relationships are love relationships. Nathan rebuked David. Ezra rebuked the remnant of Israel. Ruth loved her mother-in-law but it is less clear that Naomi loved her back. Bezalel and Oholiab were partner-builders in Exodus 31; I wish we knew more about them.

Martin Buber famously taught us that moments of genuine connection between human beings (“I/Thou relationships”) are a mirror of the relationship between the human being and God.  We human beings have a profound need for the Other, someone not ourselves.

It is tragic that we also have a profound fear of the Other. The person who is not me can be a friend or an enemy: an ezer or a Cain. The only way to find out is to take a risk, and to keep taking the risk of relationship. Those who will not take a risk, risk being alone.

This Shabbat, let us take stock of our relationships. How long has it been since my last I/Thou moment? How long since I took the risk of really listening to someone else?

Shabbat and Capital Punishment

Image: A Judge’s Gavel. (Public Domain)

Parashat Vayahkel-Pekudei begins with an alarming statement:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. – Exodus 35:1-3

After this bombshell, Moses continues to tell the Israelites the directions for building the Tabernacle without saying anything more about Shabbat or capital crimes. What?!

Commenters including Sarna point out that this brief mention of the regulations of Shabbat echoes a longer passage about Shabbat in Exodus 31: 12-18. Both passages about the Sabbath stand paired with passages about the building of the Tabernacle.  The text is making two points here:

  1. Keeping Shabbat is very important, more important than any work, even such work as the building of a sanctuary for God.
  2. Jews have two holy sanctuaries: one in space and one in time. Our sanctuary in space was the Temple in Jerusalem. Our sanctuary in time is Shabbat. This juxtaposition in Torah is the source for the “cathedral in time” in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetic The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 

As for the death penalty:

We have an account in Torah of a man who was executed for violating the Sabbath. In his case:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the Eternal said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the Eternal had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:32-36

Notice that this is much later – in Numbers! – and yet “it had not been specified what should be done to him.” Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that they were waiting to see precisely what sort of death penalty was required, since there were four possibilities. Only when Moses consults with God do they learn that the punishment is stoning. Whatever is going on here, Moses and the Israelites gave this matter great seriousness, wanting direct confirmation from God before proceeding.

Many centuries later, the rabbis would write down their understanding of the rules they had received from God for capital punishment. They had strict requirements for it, without which the sentence could not be carried out:

  1. There must be 2 eye witnesses to the crime who were willing to testify.
  2. Those witnesses must be willing to participate in the execution.
  3. Those witnesses must have warned the accused before the crime that he was about to commit a capital crime.
  4. Valid witnesses must be adult Jewish males not related to the defendant or one another.
  5. The court had to consist of 23 learned rabbis.
  6. Each witness must be examined separately. If there were any discrepancies in their testimony, no matter how minor, the court must acquit.

And then in Sanhedrin 17a, we get yet another requirement:

Rav Kahana says: In a Sanhedrin where all the judges saw fit to convict the defendant in a case of capital law, they acquit him. The Gemara asks: What is the reasoning for this halakha? It is since it is learned as a tradition that suspension of the trial overnight is necessary in order to create a possibility of acquittal.

The rabbis seemed to feel that if the court was unanimous, then there was so much emotion running high that it was inappropriate to go forward with a conviction; best to sleep on it. The rabbis were worried that a unanimous court had something wrong with it – vengeance, perhaps?

At any rate, we learn from all of this that in our tradition, while the Written Torah appears to speak lightly of execution, in fact the Oral Torah – the larger context of tradition –  is extremely cautious about capital punishment, so cautious that it is hard to see how they ever managed to convict anyone of a capital crime.  (It is also worth noting that after the Romans took control of Judea in 63 BCE, the Sanhedrin no longer had the power to carry out such a verdict. The whole discussion was theoretical.)

At any rate, don’t panic at the beginning of Exodus 35. While the peshat [simple meaning of the verse appears to say that people should be executed for violating the Sabbath, our tradition does not advocate capital punishment.

That said, there are parts of the soul that come to life when we keep Shabbat, and that cannot survive without it:

More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. – Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet, philosopher, 1856-1927)