Rabbi's Message

Rabbi Charlie’s Mahashavoth – February 2024

Rabbi Reuven Hammer z”l, in Or Hadash, his commentary on the siddur, captures the significance and power of Shabbat as he introduces the Kabbalat Shabbat service:

The importance of the Sabbath is indicated by the fact that it is the only aspect of inanimate creation that is singled out for blessing, and it is the first thing to be designated as holy: And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy (Gen. 2:3). The sabbath helps us to differentiate time. Instead of being a never-ending series of days, time is structured into weeks, and the week is built around the seventh day, leading up to it and receding from it. Life is not endless toil. The seventh day is given to us, a precious gift. On it we imitate God, as it were, ceasing from our labors, admiring God’s creation, and acknowledging the beauty and wonder of it all. We take the time to rejoice, to appreciate the world but family and friends; we become truly free – not enslaved to work, to financial concerns, or to demands upon us. We can augment the mind and the spirit. Through the Sabbath we become fully human. No wonder that we take the time to greet and accept it as our partner, our bride, and our queen through poetry and song. (p. 13)

Shabbat is unquestionably one of the Judaism’s signature practices, often serving (for better or for worse) as a “litmus test” to define one’s religiosity. It is one of the first elements of Judaism taught to our children, and frequently the first practice that Jews by choice begin integrating into their new Jewish life. In most North American synagogues, congregational Shabbat dinners are almost always successful, and programs for organizing smaller community Shabbat dinners are very popular with young Jewish adults.

But Shabbat is complicated. Whereas Shabbat is frequently mentioned in the Torah, the details of its observance are scant. Even the basic commandment is not totally clear: in one presentation of the Ten Commandments we are told to “observe” (שמור/shamor) the Shabbat, but in the other presentation we are told to “remember” (זכור/zakhor). Are these commands the same? Or, if they are different, how are they different? We are told to do no manner of “work” (מלאכה/melakhah). But what do we mean by “work?” And how did we get from the Torah to the extensive practices of today?

This month, we will explore some of these questions as we study both the abstract and practical details of Shabbat. I will conduct a couple of study sessions on these issues (click here for more details) and we will culminate our study by participating in the International Seminar for Halakhic Study (Feb. 25), a movement-wide seminar in which Conservative/Masorti congregations, communities, and schools will come together to study a specific teshuvah (Legal Responsum) of our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Actually, we’ll be studying two: A New Responsum on the Sabbath, by Marcus Mordecai Schwartz and Chaim Weiner, and Electric Cars on Shabbat: A Renewed Responsum on the Sabbath by David Fine and Barry Leff.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will shortly be providing resources, but I also recommend reading the section on Shabbat in The Observant Life:  The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, edited by Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath.

I look forward to learning with you!

Rabbi Charlie Popky