Rethinking Shabbat in Lockdown

By Laurel Leff.

I’ve always wanted to honor Shabbat, I’ve always meant to honor Shabbat, but I never have. I wasn’t willing to lose a day I desperately needed to catch up on the week’s work, and to do the errands and chores that had plagued me all week long.

In this lockdown era, however, work and chores stretch over undifferentiated days, and errands, like weekends, are mostly a thing of the past. My frenetic existence is no more. Now, it seemed, might be the perfect time to observe the Sabbath.

Yet, what had drawn me to being shomer Shabbes – the idea of slowing down from the hectic pace of daily life, and of connecting to a community outside my professional peers – seems inconsonant with our current moment. The one thing I don’t need is slowness and the one thing I can’t have is community. (I know, Zoom is fine, and provides something, but whatever it is, it’s not community.) 

The idea of slowing down seems inconsonant with our current moment

But then I realized there was another reason to celebrate the Sabbath that might be perfectly suited to our current moment – making one day different from another, one week different from another, noting the passage of time. As most of us can attest after six weeks staying home, the days, the weeks, the months run together. We don’t know if it’s Thursday or if it’s Tuesday. Even the weather, mostly cold and cloudy, doesn’t tell us if it’s March or April. (Maybe May will shine.) It’s not only disorienting, it’s depressing.

Yet, we can impose structure on our endless days. Passover, which came four weeks into our communal shutdown, proved that. I know Passover this year was very different than Passover every other year – no large family gatherings, no hospitality to the stranger, no mom’s gefilte fish transported cross country for an east coast seder – but it was still Passover. For that week, as we prepared our tiny seder meals, learned to Zoom to multiple dining rooms, ate matzoh and shunned hametz, we placed ourselves within the year (it’s Passover!) and connected to all those previous Passovers. I also was fortunate this year to be asked to address several local congregations for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. So that most meaningful of days resonated as a special event within this difficult year, and as a means of providing continuity with a painful past.

For that week, as we prepared our tiny seder meals, we placed ourselves within the year

My adult son, who is spending the lockdown cooped up with his parents and cousin, immediately grasped the importance of differentiating one day from the other. He insisted that we dispense with home-cooked dinners two nights a week to order takeout and support our local restaurants. We have to do it every week, and we have to do it on Wednesday and Sunday so we’d know it is Wednesday and Sunday. We’re contemplating adding a Friday lunch to help our local deli and ourselves. Not surprisingly, our son is the one member of our quarantine group who regularly tunes into online Shabbat services at various synagogues (Reform, of course).

So will I now pledge to do no work, take no drives, turn on no appliances, watch no Netflix? Probably not. There is still too much work that needs doing, too many chores that have piled up, too much unpleasantness that requires distractions. But I can promise to make Friday night and Saturday day special. Tonight I will light the candles, eat a nice chicken meal, and mark the passage of another week.

Laurel Leff is Associate Director of the Jewish Studies Program and Associate Professor of Journalism.

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