Monday, June 20, 2011

Shabbat: What Can't You Live Without?

This entire post is based on a single question with two variations.

If you do observe Shabbat
what is the one thing you wish was permitted?

If you don't observe Shabbat, what is the one thing you couldn't live without being able to do over the 25-hour period?

Now for a bit of background. I recently was thinking about this question -- for me the former -- and I didn't even have to debate. It's easy: Shower. As someone who loathes sweating and suffers from the worst of allergies (two different meds and I still needed some Benadryl on Shabbos in Neve Daniel!), I crave a late-night Friday shower and a pre-shul shower on Saturdays.

I wrote last year a post about a major decision circa 2008 in which I had to choose between Shabbos or a $20 Bill, and during my summer in Chicago that same year I blogged a lot about my struggles to take on the mitzvah of Shabbos observance. I got a lot of flack, but I also got a lot of support. It's not like deciding to stop drinking soda or coffee, no, it's more than that. But do any of us really understand why we observe Shabbos? Do any of us really see how black and white it is? Or is it just a day of rest, a day where we don't work, a day where we spend the time as we see fit?

Ultimately, Shabbos is easily defined: In Hebrew, Shabbat means resting. At the beginning of Genesis, HaShem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, refraining from creating. It's easy to say that we were commanded by a divine power to rest according to the Decalogue (aka 10 Commandments), so we should stop what we're doing and rest because the Man Upstairs said so. But what does resting mean? And, more importantly, what does "creating" entail?

I remember, once upon a time, asking a friend what Shabbat meant to them. This friend responded that it was a day of rest from the week's work, just as G-d commanded, so they spent their time at the movies, shopping, playing guitar, and doing all of the things that made them feel rested. It makes sense; even I'll admit that. We've rolled into this world where Shabbat is more about resting from work than resting from creating, and we often lose sight of what it means to create. Hence, this is why we have the 39 Melachot, or forms of creative activity, from which we abstain (found in Talmud Tractate Shabbat).

Again, we don't rest from work or that unfun stuff we do 24/5 -- we rest from creation.

I won't go into every last detail of the 39 Melachot, because to be honest, it takes people a lifetime to get everything down pat, but you can find a list of them here. As the world evolves and changes, we have to figure out how our new-fangled lifestyles fit into the idea of "creation." It's never the other way around -- we don't bend creation for our access to life, we bend our lives to rest from creation.

But let's be honest, from a practical point of view, even if you don't buy into the divinity of the 10 Commandments or the command to rest from creation on Shabbat, it makes lots of sense to just take a day off from creating -- whether that, for you, is writing, moving furniture, baking, cooking, flipping on your laptop, refreshing Twitter a dozen times an hour, and so on.

So, have you thought of your answer? Sock it to me.

Note: I just realized that I flip between Shabbat and Shabbos more than anyone I know. The only difference is sort of the Hebrew (Shabbos) and Modern Hebrew (Shabbat) pronunciation of the word שבת.