“I love the idea of Shabbat as a day of rest, although I’m not interested in following all of the mitzvot (commandments). How might I build a practice that is meaningful to me and respects the tradition?”
In the mythic tale of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah teaches that on the seventh day, Shabbat, God both finished the work of creation and rested. What a powerful teaching! Our world, and our lives, is incomplete without a day to rest from the work that makes up the rest of the week—a day to be and not to do, to rediscover how we want and need to be living our lives.
Jewish tradition has developed an elaborate set of practices for Shabbat. Of course, for many of us, the practices in their fullness are too much. Your question is the question: What would be an authentic, meaningful Shabbat practice for us today? Those three things—Jewish tradition, the context in which we live, and the individual—have to be in dialogue to build a Judaism that speaks to our souls.
So here are some suggestions for next steps:
- Be shomer Shabbos (a person who observes the mitzvot) in your way: What you are striving for is to develop a practice of keeping Shabbat that makes sense for you. You are saying “yes” to Jewish tradition and to your individuality, seeking the wisdom that emerges from bringing those two things into dialogue. That is how Judaism has always evolved. It is a deeply traditional act, and I encourage you to see your quest as a fully Jewish endeavor and even to consider yourself shomer Shabbos, someone who keeps Shabbat.
- Keep some don’ts: Many of the practices of Shabbat involve refraining from activities that are necessary to make civilization function—food preparation, building, commerce, etc. Shabbat is a day not to build but to enjoy. It requires refraining from at least some of the things we do the rest of the week. What do you need to let go of from your everyday life to feel a greater sense of peace? What rules you during the week that you wish you could take a break from? Maybe pick one or two of those things to start and avoid them for at least some portion of the day.
- Start some dos: Shabbat is a time for doing special things as well, such as eating and praying. Shabbat meals are really a way to be with people. Use Shabbat as a time to connect with community by having great meals with people you love to be with. The rituals surrounding a Shabbat meal can be helpful for this process, and can help us to recognize that this encounter is indeed special. So if you aren’t already, consider experimenting with including the meal-related rituals, such as lighting candles and blessing wine and bread. As for prayer, take time to be, whether that is some form of spiritual practice, experience of nature or something else that helps you put your life in the context of the grandeur of this world and being alive.
There are great resources for reinventing Shabbat for today. If you haven’t already, check out the “Ten Pathways Toward a New Shabbat” by my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green.