If you walk into a Liberal synagogue, you will find an array of leaflets written by the movement’s rabbinate on all kinds of subjects: ageing, animal welfare, biblical criticism, ethical eating, the environment, genetic research, Jewish marriage, lesbian and gay Jews and same-sex relationships, miracles, and much more. But, to date, although Shabbat is a central feature of Liberal Jewish life, apart from the siddur, there is no Liberal Judaism publication on Shabbat.
And yet, in recent years, several Liberal rabbis have produced material for our own congregations in response to requests from congregants for guidance — mostly about making erev Shabbat at home. Our congregants do not just ask the easy questions; they make more challenging enquiries, like “I have to work on Saturday mornings; what can I do to make Shabbat a special day?”; “My working life is so demanding; all I want to do on Shabbat is tend my garden — can I observe Shabbat by gardening?”
Similar questions have been put about playing football and other sports. Then, there are the questions about money: “I can only get to the shul on Shabbat — is it ok for me to put my loose change in the tzedakah jar, when I come?”; “I know Shabbat isn’t a day for transactions, but is it ok to use money on Shabbat for restful purposes?”
To begin to address these questions, we need to understand the essence of Shabbat. Shabbat is sacred; a day set apart — which is what “sacred” means in Hebrew: “God blessed the seventh day and set it apart”, vay’kaddeish oto (Genesis 2:3). Before there was a day set apart for rest, the world was divided between the leisured ruling class and their serfs who never ceased from their labours. So, Shabbat was a revolutionary invention.
At its heart, Shabbat is a day for shalom, peace, when we experience life as it could be some day, when antagonists “beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks and learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3) and a day of liberation. As the kiddush blessing puts it, Shabbat is “a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt”, and so a day for inspiring us to devote at least some of our time during our working lives to doing what we can to bring an end to exploitation and oppression, so that all the slaves may go free.
Shabbat is, as its name tells us, a day for “ceasing” from work. In Affirmations of Liberal Judaism, which sets out the distinctive approach of the movement, Shabbat is described “as a day of rest and joy, study and worship, which may be observed by cessation from work and positive acts of celebration”. Within Liberal Judaism, the emphasis has always been less on what you must not do on Shabbat, and more on the positive qualities of the day: on ora v’simchah, “light and joy” — as the 16th century mystics of Safed put it — and oneg, “delight” (Isaiah 58:13).
Liberal Jews, too, sing V’shamru v’ney Yisrael et Hashabbat, “The children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16-17): but for us, the key teaching is that “the Eternal One ceased from work and was refreshed”’ — shavat vayinafash — literally, was resouled or “re-beinged”.
So, Shabbat as a day for refreshment and renewal; an opportunity, not only to “do” differently, but to “be” different — to recharge our batteries; to renew ourselves, physically and spiritually.