When I initially became more religiously observant, twenty five years ago, the laws of Shabbat felt overwhelming for me. There were so many things I was not allowed to do! I vividly recall sitting in yeshivah with a chavruta (study partner) learning from Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah that we cannot bite our nails on Shabbat. I was so anxious about one more thing I couldn’t do that I actually began biting my nails! Thankfully, it was a weekday; so I was not violating Shabbat! Fortunately, over time I got used to the Shabbat laws and grew to really enjoy my day of rest and abstention from melachah (creative activity).
This idea that Shabbat is about resting and ceasing from work is discussed in the introduction to our double-parsha, as the seventh day is called a shabbat shabbaton: a day of full rest (Shemot 35:2). However, many forget that the same verse also proclaims “וביום השביעי קדש יהיה לכם-And the seventh day shall be holy to you.” Shabbat should be a day of holiness, of kedushah. This verse is not only describing the Shabbat, it is prescribing that we actively make Shabbat holy.
Let me share with you another story from the same period that speaks to the charge of making Shabbat holy. When I was in yeshiva in Israel, my father would visit me once a year from the States. We would spend Shabbat in the Jerusalem neighborhood Bayit VeGan with our family and enjoy delicious meals. Afterward, we would go for long, pleasurable strolls through the neighborhood.
One Friday evening, around eleven o’clock at night, we were on a walk and the roads were pretty empty due to the late hour. Everything was serene and peaceful. Until, all of a sudden, we heard yelling and screaming. It sounded like two men fighting with one another! As we kept walking, the sound got louder and louder. We decided to see where the commotion was coming from. It was from within a shul! We quickly arrived at the entrance to the shul, opened the door, and walked in. We were surprised to find two men with long beards screaming at each other, but not from a place of anger. It was from a place of enjoyment. They were learning Torah! They were going back and forth, with immense passion and excitement, fighting for truth, as they sipped their hot Wissotzky tea.
I will never forget my father’s face when he witnessed this site, a spectacle he wasn’t used to seeing in our hometown. Here were two men, late into the night, in an empty shul, on an empty street, passionately engaged in Torah. And no one was forcing them to do so! They were just learning Torah from their hearts and making Shabbat holy. Seeing this vision, and especially seeing my father’s reaction to this vision, left a lasting impression on me. It taught me that Shabbat is not just about ceasing from work; it is about creating holy experiences.
There are many ways we can make Shabbat holy. We just need to make it a priority, to commit, or recommit, energy to this holy agenda. We ourselves can dedicate time to learn Torah on Shabbat, at home or in a shul. We can be careful to sing zemirot, Shabbat songs, together with our friends and family at the Shabbat table. We can remember to bring divrei Torah (lit. words of Torah) and share them at our table. We can go for walks and reflect on what is important for us. We can meditate and think about Hashem. By intentionally heeding the Torah’s guidance, “And the seventh day shall be holy to you,” each of us in our own way, we do not only elevate our Shabbat, we imbue the rest of the week with energy, bringing much blessing and holiness to our homes.