a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Shabbat Challenge

Posted on: January 23, 2011

I’m two classes into my second trimester of my conversion classes.  We’re spending this term going through the Jewish Holiday cycle, starting with Shabbat.  I’ve read so many books on Shabbat and just finished up Entering Jewish Prayer by Hammer and still feel a little lost, but inspired by Shabbat. 

One of you lovely readers mentioned trying to have a real, traditional, halachic Shabbat and I wondered this weekend if I could take on that challenge as well.  We learned in class that the Talmud, not the Torah outlines the 39 types of work that are forbidden on Shabbos: Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing (hard one), Erasing, Cooking (harder), Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting (I can’t even knit!), Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting (no selection of movies to watch), Sifting, Grinding (there goes baking) Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, and Marking.

There’s a really amazing loop-hole when it comes to the electricity part.  Apparently, there are conservative rabbis who argue the whole “electicity=burning” thing because the scientific lingo involved with electricity actually doesn’t have anything to do with a flame being kindled.  I failed Chemistry 3 times in college and never took Physics so I don’t know exactly what the rabbi was talking about.  But those of you who know the science behind electricity know what they’re talking about.  In any case, because electricity isn’t actually burning I can have lights and my computer.  Therefore, if I wanted I could watch a movie that was picked out before Shabbos and put in my computer before Shabbos I could.  I won’t (I don’t think) but the option is there.  Honestly, most of those 39 don’t apply to my every-day life but there are others that seem problematic no writing, no cooking, no washing, no selecting, no combing. 

One of my favorite themes in Heschel’s book on Shabbat is the distinction of time on Shabbos.  He talks about Shabbat being one of the only times that we can control time when time is usually the thing we can never control.  On Shabbat we can “control” time because we take time to notice it, to stop, to pause, to exist in a holy space in holy time.  Usually when I take time for myself I spend it writing but it would be nice to take that time to read.  It would be nice to take that time to reconnect with friends, with my partner, with my family, maybe with God on a deeper level.  Even though it was written decades ago so much of Heschel’s book makes sense in 2011.  In thinking of when I could take this Shabbat Challenge- I’m planning it, trying to figure out which weekend I have off from work and what other things could conflict with scheduling Shabbat, scheduling time with God I’m astounded and reminded that time is something we cannot control.  What does it mean that I have to schedule a truly meaningful Shabbat?  I immediately have a mystical thought and try to remember to see God in everything, in every moment, at every time but the red marks already on my February Calendar remind me that I often don’t make time for God, to truly appreciate Shabbat and perhaps the only time to truly appreciate the essence that should be Shabbat needs to be scheduled in like a bill payment or doctor’s appointment.  Is that sad or is it reality?  How do the Orthodox do it or do they have the same problems and issues around observing Shabbat in a traditional way.

It looks like in two weekends, February 4-6th, I have time off of work so that will be my Shabbat Challenge.  I’m excited but mostly anxious…can I really observe Shabbat wholly and traditionally?  Am I ready?  This semester the rabbis leading the class vary weekly.  The rabbi who lead on Wednesday said something that really struck a chord with me.  He said that being a Reform Jew doesn’t mean that you’re a less-traditional or less-observant Jew but that you’re a Jew who is informed and makes the decision to do or not do something.  I’m paraphrasing but it made sense to me.  I’ve been struggling the last few weeks with the choice to convert Reform for that very reason.  I didn’t want to be a fair weather Jew, or less-than a Jew but I struggled with the prospect of taking on an Orthodox conversion because I don’t believe that the Torah can be taken for its word.   I don’t want to take this “Shabbat Challenge” just for the hell of it, and just because I’m “supposed” to but rather to experience it.  I spend most Shabbats at shul for an hour and a half and maybe we’ll light candles and maybe we’ll have challah but I’ve never gone to Saturday morning service.  I’ve never spent the day without the distractions of life to actually enjoy the one time in the week I have to reflect.  That, I’m looking forward to.

9 Responses to "Shabbat Challenge"

Wonderful piece, Erika. A thought or two, from a Reform Jew who observes Shabbat in a Reform manner:

I too love Heschel’s book. It is the one that makes sense for me, and presents the meaning of Shabbat, rather than just the regulations, in a way I was able to embrace and work with.

I firmly believe that my own Jewish observance must first work for me and for my family, and must work starting from where I am, and we are, not from some ideal. Shalom Bayit–peace in the home–is for me the value that trumps all. The best advice I received from my rabbi was: start with what is possible. Don’t look at the traditionalist rules if it makes you feel inferior or not a “true” Jew. Do what you can and see where it takes you.

We light candles, do kiddush and motzi, and make Friday night special, different than any other night. We try to do the same on Saturday. (My family is not into services, so my choice is to spend time with them rather than separate myself to go to synagogue.) We will drive to the beach or a park or a museum, and we will pay to enter. We do not shop, however. We will watch movies (or, okay, playoff football) but not regular TV. I garden, even if that involves any number of traditionally non-permitted acts, because it connects me to the earth and creation.

I understand that is not traditional Shabbat observance, and would be rejected by the Talmud and most Orthodox Jews of today. On the other hand, we observe Shabbat more than most Jews on the planet do, and we make a sincere effort to separate the day from the others of the week.

It’s the same as Kashrut. To the question, “Do you keep Kosher?” I answer “Not yet.” I am moving in that direction, and I keep it in my way, in a way my family can handle. I do as much as I can and I try to do more – but it is not all or nothing. Several Modern Orthodox rabbis have supported this approach.

Finally: the Rabbis of the Talmud were the first Reform Jews. They consciously re-formed Judaism so it would survive and be possible to observe for the Jews in exile.

Have a great journey.

Thanks so much for such great information, Jonathan. I completely agree that I have to do what works best for me and my relationship in terms of how “Jewish” I can be in terms of observance. I don’t beat myself up because it’s always going to be a learning process for me, especially going through the conversion process. On the other hand, I do enjoy the challenge of trying something on to see if it fits. I tried on kashrut and right now, it does not fit-perhaps it will in the future but right now isn’t the time. In an ideal world, I’d like to fully experience the quite of Shabbat and turn off everything else but right now, it will not work for me. I work most Friday mornings and most Saturdays as well…I’m definitely happy, though and I know that at times I’ll be more observant than others.

I find it interesting that when it comes to Judaism (like Christianity I suppose) you have a broad spectrum of how and why people “Jew” you have those who enter a shul only once or twice a year around High Holy Days but perhaps they have a profound and real experience that someone who attends shul every Friday but doesn’t grasp the message…

I love reading and learning about observances and the ability to chose what works for me in the here and now knowing that they may change in the future.

I’m still wanting to give this a try but I think I would like to wait until the days are a bit longer since I’ll be forgoing the electricity too. My husband will be more likely have something to do because there is no way he’s going to sit in this house with me for 25 hours being unable to use electricity. He’d go beserk!

That’s a really good idea. I didn’t think about the light thing. I’m excited though. We shall see how it goes next week!

I’ve looked at the Calendar and I think I’m going to go with March or April. Originally I had planned to go to the Mikveh by April but I’m pushing it foward a bit so this can still be a part of my Conversion Project even if I wait until April. So are you going to give it a go this week?!

I’m going to give it a go…we shall see. I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but I really want to try. I told Mir about it and she told me we had a birthday party to go to on Friday, which complicates things. I’m really excited to go to Saturday morning service, I’ve only ever done Kabbalat Shabbat service. You’re heading to the mikvah in 3 months!! I’m so pumped to read all about your experience.


How did the test shabbat go? As someone who gives things up on a regular basis (keeping shabbas since the say I was born!) I am so curious to hear what it feels like when it is a new experience. I hope you didn’t find it too difficult. I always see it as a time to step away from the TV, computer, and other distractions and spend quality time with family, friends, and a good book.

Hey Ayelet!
I had to postpone the “Shabbat Challenge” because I switched shifts with another manager at work. I don’t have another weekend off until March so I’ll have to waite until then.

I don’t have a television so that wouldn’t be too hard. I was mainly excited about spending time with my lady-love, taking time to relax, and actually go through the entire Shabbat rituals. Next month, fingers crossed!

[…] of my friends, an Orthodox Jewish woman, commented on my Shabbat Challenge post that Shabbat was always spent traditionally for her, that it was a time for her to reset.  […]

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