Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, noted Jewish philosopher and civil rights activist of the 20th century, described the Jewish Sabbath as “a cathedral in time.”
While the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, Judaism focused on the idea of sacred space. At that time, Jews made three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to make offerings in the Temple, and everyone had to be careful about their behavior, the cleanliness of their bodies and even what they brought with them when they entered the Temple. The Passover sacrifice, the “First Fruit” offerings, and the many different types of tithing and financial offerings had to be brought to the Temple and the festivals could not be celebrated anywhere else.
When the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70 C.E., Jewish attitudes toward sacred space changed. Jews are commanded only to make sacrifices and bring offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem — without the Temple, our religion had to refocus on other aspects of festival and Sabbath observance.
Judaism came to focus on sacred time, rather than sacred space.
New Year’s Eve is the closest parallel I can think of to how Jews view Erev Shabbat — Friday evening each week when the Jewish Sabbath begins.
On Dec. 31, people across the world prepare beforehand and wait eagerly for the exact moment when the New Year begins. Some people begin celebrating early, kissing their families at the stroke of midnight, while others wait until the New Year has officially begun to start partying. Many places have developed their own customs — things that everyone eats, drinks, watches or does at midnight: eating black-eyed peas, drinking champagne, watching the Ball drop in Times Square or running around the block holding your suitcases. Still, whether you are at home in your pajamas or at a fancy party, awake or asleep, the New Year begins at midnight — whether you are ready for it or not.
Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, begins in exactly the same way. As soon as the sun sets, the Sabbath has started. Just like New Year’s Eve, some people prepare for it and wait for it eagerly, while others choose to spend their time differently. When the sun sets late, many people will begin their celebrations early, waiting around for the sun to set — finally! — and then going to bed. Others run around frantically, using every spare moment to prepare and making sure everything is perfect while they still have the time. But, whether a person is at home in pajamas, praying at a synagogue, blessing the bread in a hospital waiting room, or stuck in an airport, Shabbat happens — whether we are ready for it or not.
Different families and different communities have their own particular customs associated with the evening of the Jewish Sabbath. Some people absolutely must have chicken soup, or their grandmother’s “famous” challah (braided egg bread, which some Jews eat as their bread on the Sabbath), or Chinese food. There are families with special tablecloths for the Sabbath, even special clothes and there are families that wear their most comfortable jeans or sweats. Some communities sing a great deal, while others focus more on quiet introspection.
However it is celebrated, the Jewish Sabbath is a mark of how Jews build their schedules, rather than their buildings. Shabbat comes to meet us, wherever and however we are, and it is up to each of us to decide how to receive it.
ABBY JACOBSON is the rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue at 900 N.W. 47th St., Oklahoma City, serving Jews of the Conservative movement across central Oklahoma. Jacobson serves on the boards of the Interfaith Alliance and Interfaith Power and Light. To contact Jacobson, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.