Shabbat Shalosh – Al Fresco
By Richard Abbott, UK
It started with erev shabbat. Candle lighting times was 9:13 pm (BST) in Bristol and shabbat ended at 10:46 on Saturday, a lovely long day. As I walked down to the city centre I took out my battered Nokia 33-10 and texted James, my Noachite friend (more accurately my fellow pre-Jew) and David, my born Jewish friend:
Sent: 26 – June – 2015 – 20:46:32
My parents are gonna visit and I don’t think they’re ready to join me at an orthodox shul, please accept my apologies and share them with the rabbi for my absence. You gotta honour those fathers and mothers y’all. Shabbat Shalom
I padded along ‘White Ladies Road’ (again I can only apologise) and down towards the ‘Clifton Triangle’. There was always one or two homeless people at the triangle, playing tin whistle or selling the Big Issue. There are some posh shops and it’s under the shelter so its a safe place for them to be. I started to wonder if it was kosher to give money on shabbat.
“Is it that I’m not supposed to handle money or that I’m not supposed to engage in trade?” I asked myself, “Well, either way I must not stand idly by the blood of my neighbour so I popped a little something in his hand as I passed by.
“G-d bless you, have a good evening.” he said.
“Score,” I thought, “Shabbat hasn’t even started yet and someone’s already blessed me,” an unexpected bonus.
I wove in and out of pedestrians as I descended Park street. The Friday evening tide had already started to turn. The businessmen had disappeared and the next shift had begun. Drinkers. I noticed that the council had put out those portable free standing urinals to stop men peeing on walls.
This is a city that needs shabbat.
I arrived at the fountains in front of the hippodrome. After a couple of minutes I started to look like a man waiting for his date. I’m not someone who knows how to wait comfortably; I’m patient enough, I like to think and watch people pass by, it’s just that I don’t know how or where to stand to appear nonchalant, which is not an nonchalant thing to think about.
Oli arrived, we made our plans and tell some funny stories from our respective days. Then, as we head towards the cinema I ask him:
“Can we do two Jewish things before we go?” He looks wary, he’s continually being challenged by my strange new journey into Judaism, he’s very supportive but genuinely some of the things we do with our days are weird and seemingly very strange, until you try them and discover they’re genius and make your life better. I handed him thirty pounds, more than we need for a trip to the cinema. “Will you look after my money for the evening and we can sort it all out later?”
“Is this cause you can’t spend money on the sabbath?”
“Yeah, also I have a couple of candles in my pocket, can we stop in a park on the way and welcome the sabbath?” We made our way to Jurassic World via ‘Castle Park’ near the shopping centre. As I prepared my pre-convert paraphernalia I explained to him my understanding of the purposes of shabbat restrictions. I see glowing benefits in the minutiae although ultimately an opportunity to obey HaShem is a mitzvah in of itself.
I pointed out that because candle lighting times are based on the sunset and not on timezones that if you could see the candles from space then shabbat would sweep across the world sending prayers and blessings out into space.
“Sorry one sec, it’s time. I’m gonna say my brachas.”
Baruch atah adonai (blessed is the Lord), Eloheinu (our G-D), Melech haOlam (King of the world) asher Kid’shanu (who makes us holy) b’mitzvotav (with the comandment) v’tzivanu (and commanded us) l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat (to kindle the light of shabbat).
G-d didn’t command me to light the shabbat candles, I’m a goy, so I prayed “Blessed is the Lord our G-d, King of the universe who lead me here that I might light the Sabbath candles and draw close to Him. Thank You for bringing me here, please teach me to do the things that honour You the most.”
I didn’t have a table so I kindled them down on the ground out of the wind, I sat up on the park bench and prayed to G-d thanking Him for leading me here. I prayer peace and understanding, stillness and success on my family and friends and that HaShem would have a role for me and that I would succeed in it. Baruch HaShem. I sheltered the flames with my feet for a moment and chatted to Oli about Jewish things.
“Ok, they’ve gone out, we can go.”
“Do you need to light them again?”
“No,” I said, “I’ve done the mitzvah and now its finished.”
Then we went to the cinema and ate nachos and lemonade and there were dinosaurs and the guy from Parks and Rec and one guy fell over a chair onto his girlfriend when he was trying to act cool, but he wasn’t hurt, so it was ok to laugh. Then I went home, climbed into bed and fell asleep excited that the next day was Shabbat and that my wife and parents would all come to my house!
We had a good day, a family day and I had lots of opportunities between chatting to sneak off and pray. My Dad bought us lunch and then we all came home to tease each other and drink tea.
Inevitably the conversation turned Jewish and I answered some questions for my mother as best I was able. We had a good chat and my dad retired to the other room to listen to the news.
My mother asked me, quite reasonably, why I would convert orthodox as opposed to reform.
I explained to her that, while reform Judaism is a religion – primarily concerned with beliefs and tradition – orthodox Judaism is the belief that Jews have entered a complex covenant with G-D and with each other to keep the law. If one enters the covenant without the intention to keep the law they contravene the covenant. If someone falls short of the law by mistake this will be forgiven, but if someone intentionally calls the law null or evades it this is a problem. Therefore, for me, it only makes sense to enter into the covenant fully, or live as a Noachide. Entering into the covenant without the ability or intention to keep it would be to disrespect the covenant, to disrespect G-D and the nation He created.
My mother asked about the role of women and how, in an orthodox shul, women have to sit upstairs. So I rolled up my sleeves and I gave it a bloody fair whack.
“Isn’t it offensive that women have to sit upstairs away from the men?” she asked.
I pointed out that often I take on the role of the defender of Judaism, though I’m hardly an expert, but I’ll do my best.
“I think it would be offensive if women had to sit behind the men, if they could see the men but the men couldn’t see them. That might imply that the men are tempted by them but not the reverse. But that’s not the case, women sit upstairs, higher and closer to G-D and this is representative of Judaism’s approach to women. Different but not less and somewhat closer to G-d.
Now, not all women fit a certain role, neither do all men and almost anything a man can do a woman can do, but we aren’t the same. Judaism infers that women have a different role to men and a very necessary one, our society teaches that this role is less important, society is wrong.
You’ve never been a man,” I pointed out to my mother, “I’ve never been a woman, so we can’t know the subtle and intimate spiritual difference between men and women. We can only observe the external. But when I’m sat beside Sophie (my wife) in a public place I am thinking about her. I hold her hand and I’m sensitive to her body language and although I can easily draw my focus back to prayer I’m not consistently submersed in what I’m doing the way I might be while separate to her.
Judaism doesn’t ask me to separate from my wife for the sabbath, because the importance of the sabbath happens almost entirely in the home. There are only a couple of hours a week where I sit separately from her while I pray to G-D, because Judaism understands how important my wife is to me. It’s easier for me to focus on my role in the community if I stand with the men for that short time. If I wanted to stay at home with my wife and pray there, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t be full member of the community if I couldn’t manage to stand out of sight of my wife for a couple of hours a week in order to fulfil my role before G-D.
Judaism is all about being chosen for a task and the task in the synagogue, is to stand with your community and focus on G-D, for a short time, before going home and focusing on your family.
Judaism says that men and women are different and though they can overlap in many ways, different responsibilities assigned to each. We live in a culture that encourages us to do what ever we want and spit the dummy if we are opposed, but Judaism isn’t about getting what we want it’s about being chosen to perform a role.
The role of a woman is not less than the role of a man.
A good analogy comes from the Cohen:
There is a prayer of blessing that the Cohen prays over the congregation at the end of the service, if no Cohen is present he cannot bless them, but if one is then no one may make the blessing instead. This is his right. This honours the Cohen in respect of his family’s service in the Beit HaMikadesh (the Temple). But the synagogue is not the replacement for the temple, the heart of Judaism is not in the Beit Knesset (house of meeting) or synagogue, but rather it is in the home. Is there an equivalent in the home? Yes.
Who welcomes the Shabbat? The mother, or in her stead any adult woman. May a man make the blessing over the lighting of candles? Only if no Jewish woman is present. Why? Because she runs the Jewish home; she raises the children – the future Jewish community – she feeds the family and keeps their home kosher and holy, the rabbi teaches the children how to be a Jewish community and how to pray and read, but the mother teaches them to be Jews and adults and good people and safe and kind. There is no one in all of Judaism more important than the mother, than women. That’s why they have less mitzvahs to keep, mitzvahs teach us to be closer to G-D, they need less to achieve that. That’s why a woman isn’t obliged to keep any time-based mitzvahs, because if she’s busy then she’s probably doing something more important than shul. That’s why G-D’s love for us is described like a mother’s love, the route of which word is the word for womb.
G-D provides for and protects you like a father does, teaches you like a rabbi, scolds you like a prophet, blesses you like nature and rules you like a benevolent King but above all this He loves you like your mother loves you and cares for you. You think Judaism doesn’t respect women? Then you don’t fully understand Judaism and you don’t fully understand G-D, after all He is not a man.
I had a non-standard shabbat but it had all the right stuff; candles, food, family, debate, learning, love, understanding and at the centre of it all, G-D.