Jewish leading lights celebrate the joys of Shabbat

Dame Maureen Lipman, Robert Rinder, community leaders and even an Elvis impersonator extol the delights of Friday-night dinner for ShabbatUK’s national campaign


LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: The new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is announced at St John's Synagogue on December 19, 2012 in London, England. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who was former chief Rabbi of Ireland, will succeed Lord Jonathan Sacks when he steps down from the post next year. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Chief Rabbi Mirvis:

In October 2014, The Times published a remarkable editorial.

We had just launched ShabbatUK, inspired by the International Shabbos Project and were encouraging Jews across the country, regardless of their religious affiliation or level of observance, to enjoy the beauty of Shabbat and commit to a weekly digital-detox experience.

One week before ShabbatUK, reflecting on my calls for Shabbat observance, The Times wrote in a leader, “This is more than ecclesiastical special pleading. Constant availability, above all to employers, has become a measure of self-worth, but it is in fact its very diminution – just ask
the child whose bedtime story is punctuated by a parent sneaking a glance at his or her emails.”

In every campaign since then, we have heard a growing chorus of admiration for Shabbat expressed by politicians, high-profile journalists and many others. There is no question that if Shabbat did not exist, we would have to invent it as a counterweight to our ever more hectic and congested lives. This brings into sharp focus just how extraordinary it is that Shabbat is as relevant, if not more so, in our sophisticated and creative 21st century as it has ever been before. 

Shabbat is sometimes perceived to be little more than a set of restrictions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Here are just a few aspects of Shabbat which are not often spoken about, but which are sure to enhance your life for the better:

Many people, including those who are not otherwise observant, have the custom to bless their children on Friday night. The blessing of brief, beautiful words can be followed by a special message of love and appreciation whispered to each child. This year, we have made it easier than ever to observe this custom by distributing cards with transliterated wording and instructions to Jewish Primary School pupils around the country. It is an inevitable consequence of our modern, fast-paced schedules that we often forget to pause for a moment and tell our children how much they mean to us. Shabbat offers us precisely that opportunity every week and I would encourage parents of all ages to take advantage of it. 

The lighting of Shabbat candles is a beautiful experience. In a matter of moments, we move from the mayhem of weekday pressures to the tranquillity of Shabbat. A match is struck, two small flames are lit, a blessing is recited and a unique serenity descends. You and your family members are no longer distracted by the television or mobile devices. You are surrounded by the people you care about most. The few seconds after candles have been lit provide an opportunity for that often-elusive moment of mindfulness and has the potential to elevate the soul in such a special way.

In addition to our Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch, it is easy to overlook the beauty of the Seudah Shelishit, the third meal, which is imbued with a unique character. Seudah Shelishit is a smaller meal than the others and accompanied by the joyful singing of uplifting songs. At this time of year, when the Shabbat day is longer, there is nothing more inspiring or moving than singing together with family and friends. For this ShabbatUK, we have distributed a special edition of the United Synagogue’s Bensch and Sing publication via the numerous Challah Make events happening around the country, which includes transliterated words for Shabbat songs. This, of course, includes Dror Yikra, which Jewish primary school pupils have been learning in recent months and who will certainly enjoy showing you what they now love to sing.

This weekend, after an exceptionally difficult period, we will come together once again to celebrate the incomparable gift of Shabbat. Wherever you are and whatever you’re planning, I wish you all a very special ShabbatUK Shalom!

Maureen Lipman

In Manchester this Friday in my white box of a flat up in the Media City skyline, I failed to light the candles I was so excited to find on sale in the one shop in the piazza.

By the time I had laid out my slice of bread, my glass of wine and my candles, the sun was setting in scarlet splendour over the ship canal, and my supermarket sea bass was spitting in a warmed oven.

I was ready to breathe out, close my weary eyes and say my solitary brochas. I needed to let the wildly busy working week fade out and ‘get with the man upstairs’ as my son’s hippy headmaster used to say.

It was at that point that I realised I had no matches.

The one and only shop was closed, I knew no one in the high-rise flats and there was a distinct lack of Boy Scouts to rub together. What could I do?

So I mimed the candles. I struck an imaginary match on an imaginary abrasive strip and started saying “Baruch atta adanoi” in the certain knowledge that He of all... er... people, would understand.

The following day, I drove to Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire to see the Smith family who created it. They are, rather like me, matchless, the people closest to God that I know.

If you have never visited Beth Shalom, be assured, it is the most profound, empathetic, constructive experience you will ever have.

After lunch and walking around the exhibition I realised that He doesn’t mind my observance being eccentric. He just wants me to show up.

I miss my kids. I miss my grandkids, I miss my goals and resolutions. What I never miss is the feeling of blessed inclusivity that my fellow Jews around the world are for a few shining nights, united in spirit around that mythological flame.

Dame Maureen Lipman is an actress and writer.

Rabbi Marvin Hier 

“Six days thou shalt work…” That symbolises the ‘how’ world. “And on the seventh day thou shalt rest…” That symbolises the ‘why’ world.   

In describing the challenge of life, the great existential thinker and Talmudist, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith says that every human lives in two worlds: the utilitarian how world and the existential why world.

In the how world man seeks to answer – ‘how do I function?’

While in the why world it is ‘why was I created?’. Success in those worlds is measured differently. In the how world, by conquering and mastering your profession. While success in the why world is overcoming loneliness – not one of the millions who gather to celebrate New Year’s Eve are alone, although every one of them could be lonely. 

Human beings must live in both worlds. If he lives only in the how world, his life will lack meaning. If he lives exclusively in the why world, his life will be unproductive.

The most powerful civilisations have collapsed because they lacked balance. Jews are still here because we’ve lived in both worlds. This is what we’ve shared with the many guests we’ve been privileged to be with on Shabbat over the decades.

From the hundreds of students and family friends to political and faith leaders like former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Sir Israel Brodie, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to celebrities, from Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, to Gal Gadot to Jane Fonda as well as dancing at the Kotel on Friday night with Jerry Seinfeld and Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

Together, this dialectical journey produces men and women, truly created in the image of G-d.

Rabbi Heir is Founder and CEO, Simon Wiesenthal Center, and two-time Academy Award winner.

Julia Neuberger

As I light Shabbat candles I think of peace – the peace of Shabbat, the often noisy peace that is associated with family and friends around the Shabbat dinner table, the longed-for peace in the world.

Baroness Neuberger is a peer and former rabbi.

Robert Rinder

For me, the meaning of Shabbat is about simchah, about joy. So much of our lived Jewish experience is about the ‘oy vey’ that we forget to do the ‘oh yay!’

Robert Rinder is a criminal barrister and TV personality.

Elliot Levey

Shabbat candles are a spiritual homing beacon. Wherever my family may be, they’re suddenly summoned into the room like the “ministering angels” of the Shalom Aleichem song. My shoulders drop and I breathe.

Elliot Levey is an English actor.

Louise Ellman

Friday night means being together with my family, my husband, children and grandchildren gathered around the Shabbat table. It’s very special.

Dame Louise Ellman is a former Labour politician.

Marie van der Zyl

Lighting the Shabbat candles is a central part of my Jewish identity. For me, the candles are about family and continuity – the ceremony provides a link to previous generations and symbolises being Jewish wherever you are in the world.

Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies.

David Wolfson

“More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews” – Ahad Ha’am (Otherwise known as Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, a Zionist thinker, philosopher, essayist and poet, 1856-1927)

Baron Wolfson QC is a politician, barrister and life peer.

Claudia Mendoza

I love lighting candles and welcoming the change of pace after a week of hustle and bustle.

Claudia Mendoza is co-Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council.

Samantha Ellis

Shabbat means family to me. We did Shabbat every Friday over Zoom during the lockdowns and it was such a lovely way to stay in touch. Thank you also to Rabbi Aaron Goldstein at the Ark Synagogue for brilliant Tots’ Shabbat services.

Samantha Ellis is a playwright.

Miriam Lorie

The magic of Shabbat is, for me, the way time feels completely different – softer, more spacious, less full of demands and distractions. It is what Heschel called “the palace in time” and what the Talmud called “a taste of the world to come”.

Miriam Lorie is rabbi in training with Kehillat Nashira

Elvis Shmelvis

Elvis was halachically Jewish and acknowledged his heritage by putting a Magen David on his mother’s gravestone and teaching his band Hava Nagila. I’m carrying on his tradition – and, of course, my own.

Martyn Lopes-Dias performs as Elvis Shmelvis.

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