This week, I did a really special thing: I brought in Shabbat by myself for the first time! I’ve been preparing for – and bringing in – Shabbat for many years with the various Jewish families I’ve worked for, but doing it by myself was different. There were no little kids running around making noise. It was just me, standing in my kitchen, with my dog staring up at me.
But first things first: What is Shabbat? Shabbat is the weekly holiday that Jews observe and celebrate, comparable to the Christian Sabbath. It lasts from Friday night at sundown to Saturday night at sundown, and Shabbat is to be a peaceful day of rest – a brief experience that, if done correctly, gives Jews a small taste of heaven. During Shabbat no work is to be done. Various Jewish sects disagree exactly on what is considered ‘work,’ but Orthodox Jews are typically quite strict. I’ll cover more on that later, as I get better at observing Shabbat and understanding the specific laws, and right now I’m focusing on the major pieces and on keeping the Shabbat spirit alive in my words and actions.
I know that in coming years, especially once my fiancé and I have kids, we’ll start our own Shabbat traditions, so I started simple and covered the essentials. First, I set out all of the things I would need on my stove, including the plastic silver kiddush cups I bought last week from the kosher grocery store. I have candles from an Israeli company, bought from the same store, and I put them in little glass votive holders. I didn’t have two loaves of challah (delicious traditional Shabbat egg bread), so I laid out a pita and a loaf of bread. I opened my kosher wine. I put my little bencher at the ready.
Once I was prepared, the first thing I did was place a coin in my tzedakah box. Tzedakah is the Jewish principle of charity – certain holidays focus strongly on tzedakah – and the families I’ve worked with have a tradition of having everyone in the family put a coin in the special “tzedakah box” and then sharing a short prayer or wish for the coming week. Some tzedakah boxes are traditional and beautiful. My tzedakah box is pink and says A Penny For Your Thoughts Seems A Bit Pricey.
Next, I lit my two little candles. I waved my hands toward my eyes three times in a gathering gesture, a symbol that represents the bringing back of the soul from the burdens of the week. Then I covered my eyes and sang the Shabbat blessing, keeping my eyes covered until I was done saying the special Shabbat blessing and my own personal prayer. I prayed to find peace during Shabbat – I had been extra crabby the past few days, and I wasn’t sure why. Nothing in particular seemed wrong, but I was being short-tempered with my fiancé and my dog, both of whom are way too sweet, good-natured, and patient to deal with that. I prayed that all the people in the world who are separated from those they love because of Covid-19 will be able to be reunited soon. Then I uncovered my hands. At this point, Shabbat had begun.
I opened my bencher, which is a small book of common Jewish prayers that are often given out as wedding favors, and sang Shalom Aleichem, which is a 16th century traditional song greeting the two Shabbat angels. Like many Jewish songs, it’s haunted beautiful and you can hear a lovely rendition of it here and here.
Then I made kiddush. I filled up my silver kiddush cup to the point where it brimmed over (to signify one’s cup overflowing), recited the kiddush prayer with generous help from the transliterated section of my bencher, and then drank the wine. Unfortunately, there was nobody to share the wine with, so I had to finish it myself over the course of the night. Bummer.
Next, I went to the sink and washed my hands as I recited the special prayer for washing hands. Jews ritually wash their hands often – first thing in the morning, after using the bathroom, before they eat, etc. – which is rumored to have caused lower levels of community illness during the plague. Naturally, this only caused their neighbors to be more suspicious and kill more Jews. Anyway.
Between the time you wash your hands and eat the challah, you typically remain silent, but because I was the only one present, I spoke to say hatmotzi – the blessing over the bread. Then I broke it, poured honey over it (to have a sweet Shabbat, of course), and ate it.
And… that’s as far as I got. There are more prayers to pray and more songs to sing, but typically you don’t spend Shabbat evening by yourself. In most Jewish communities, Shabbat is either spent with family or with friends, if you’re single. Spending time with community members and sharing food is a big and wonderful part of being Jewish, but because of Covid-19, that just isn’t an option right now.
As I lay in bed that night, my Shabbat candles still burned in the kitchen. The mood they set and the lighting they provided really was peaceful and beautiful. I didn’t quite meet my goal of making every moment of Shabbat peaceful, but I did remember to remind myself to temper myself when I was feeling crabby, and I think I set a good precedent to build on. Mazel tov to myself!