Books shabbat

“The Principle of the Ongoing Human Project”: How I Keep Shabbat

“How does one determine the proper way to keep Shabbat?” I get that question regularly from Jews who do not follow halachah traditionally, but who do not consider it irrelevant, and want a means of deciding such things as whether to write or ride or use electricity then.

Because the commandment to keep Shabbat appears in the Torah adjacent to the discussion of building the desert sanctuary (the Mishkan), the Rabbis interpret Shabbat work to include any item connected with that sanctuary’s sacrificial cult—thirty-nine activities in all, including sowing and plowing, kneading and baking, spinning and tearing, slaughtering and writing, kindling or dousing a fire, and so on (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2).

Liberal-minded Jews often wonder about these things. Kindling fire was difficult work back then, they say, but flicking an electric switch is hardly backbreaking labor. Their bafflement is understandable, but they miss the biblical point. While they may well decide that turning on lights is permissible for them on Shabbat, that decision can hardly be based on the amount of actual toil involved. The Rabbis’ concept of work goes much deeper than that.

The thirty-nine forms of sanctuary work fall into four categories: baking bread (for the priests), preparing fabric (for the Tabernacle’s curtains), preparing a scroll (for writing), and building (the Mishkan itself). These four, however, are part of a larger category: they are all part of the human project of building and preserving culture.asset_image

This insight arrives by way of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who noted that every human society cooks food, mandates clothing, builds and decorates homes, and transmits learning from generation to generation. This insistence on converting raw nature into cuisine, style, art, and a historical record is what makes us fully human.

The rabbinic forms of work, then, are no mere laundry list of random items. They are all exemplifications of the grand human project of transforming nature into culture.

“Work” is not just going to a job or doing the housework, therefore. It is the ongoing human effort to leave our mark upon the world—a human project that inevitably engages us, because it is the means of staking out our worth and, in the end, leaving behind what we will be remembered for. It’s what gets us up in the morning.

But at the same time, it’s what we lose sleep over. So Shabbat is the day that provides a break from the ongoing task of advancing the human project, as if God says, “I hold you responsible for perfecting My world—but not today.”

Here, then, is how I, a liberal Jew, make Shabbat decisions. I consult halachah with seriousness; I then measure my life by its principles, but not by all its specific regulations. One such principle is to take time off from the human project. So anything connected with that project’s work and worry gets put on hold.

On Shabbat, I do not (for example) write my books, articles, and columns, but I do e-mail personal notes to friends and family. My Shabbat reading can be about anything—but not connected to my research. I study Torah, but not any section on which I am writing an article. I do no errands, but I drive to synagogue and leisure-time activities that enhance life’s fullness.

On Shabbat, I cherish the gift of family and friends; I fill my soul with music and art, love and laughter, nature and nurture, solitude and community. My responsibility for the human project will return soon enough, when Shabbat is over.

I have the highest regard for Jews who follow the traditional halachic guide to keeping Shabbat. But stipulating just that single path to proper Shabbat observance puts Shabbat beyond the reach of those who find its halachic details unpersuasive but who nonetheless want to honor Shabbat in a reasonable and satisfying way. This underlying “Principle of the Ongoing Human Project” can be a compelling guide to making Shabbat matter in our lives.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, is professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Excerpted from Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and published in 2016 by CCAR Press.

Books shabbat

Creating Holy Moments

A way to deepen the Shabbat experience involves less talking and more silence—something focused more internally. It is a practice called mindfulness. The following essay, exerpted from Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, explores how mindfulness can be part of your Shabbat practice.


Be Like God

The opening narrative in the Book of Genesis introduces us to a hard-working and busy God, creating the entire world, according to the Torah, in just six days. The Book of Exodus introduces us to another aspect of God’s identity. Here the Torah reminds us, “On the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). The Hebrew words of this verse, bayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash, are part of the V’shamru prayer sung on Friday night; they are also used to introduce the Kiddush on Shabbat morning.asset_image

The words tell us about God and speak to the human condition as well. They suggest that on the seventh day, we can be like God. We can become still; we can settle in, breathe deeply, and be refreshed. The rituals for the Shabbat table blessings are built around the Torah’s suggestion that God’s actions on the seventh day of creation are a model for all of us—men and women, teenagers, and even children. Work six days with a full heart at whatever you do and then stop. Stop and do something godlike, shavat vayinafash, sit still and breathe, become refreshed, and then return to the sacred work that fills our days, expressing creativity, working for freedom, repairing a broken world.


The Invitation

Shabbat is an invitation to slow down, to become more mindful of your self and your place in creation. The table blessings and rituals are tools to help make the transition from busy to not. It can be challenging to accept this sacred invitation, which is why it helps to keep the following in mind:

  • Slowing down is important.
  • Silence is good.
  • Posture makes a difference.
  • Any attempt at prayer is enough.
  • Even smiling helps!

Accepting the invitation to Shabbat and preparing to celebrate at the table can help us change pace and enable us to pay attention to how we move our bodies, use our breath, and quiet our minds. It’s a tiny taste of how we could live our lives, more attuned to the natural world, with greater connections to other people and greater awareness of God’s example.


Your Preparation

Even the physical act of setting out the candlesticks, the Kiddush cup, and the challah can help you begin to move into Shabbat with intention. The mindfulness meditations, which are offered along with the Home Service, can lead you further. You might try using one each week; perhaps do the same one for a few weeks in a row, or rotate them at other times. Some Fridays the process will feel right. You’ll know it has “worked.” Other times you may have less success. Remember that it is a practice, so we keep practicing, being grateful when we succeed and forgiving ourselves when we don’t.


Creating the Moment—Even Before Saying the Blessings

Experiment with the following steps when your friends and family arrive at the table ready to welcome Shabbat.

Stand with your feet planted about shoulders’ width apart. (This can also be done by those who

choose to remain seated.) This is a sturdy and deliberate stance.

Push your shoulders down and lengthen your spine to actually feel taller.
Close your eyes in order to focus better on your breath. If that is uncomfortable, just lower your

gaze to give everyone at the table some privacy.

Unclench your jaw, and loosen the muscles around your mouth.

Take one or two or even three long, slow, deep cleansing breaths in and out—inhaling so

deeply that you can actually feel your heart lift and ribs rise in your chest. It’s good to hear the sound of the breath, making its way from the world into the body and out again.

Open your eyes or raise your gaze.


Turn to the Home Service or one of the readings or meditations in Gates of Shabbat.

Read aloud—slowly, very slowly—paying attention to the pause of each comma, the rest after

each period, the open space between each paragraph.

When you are done reading, pause again—counting to five in your head. There is no rush.

Take another deep breath in and out.
Smile again.
Notice how Shabbat has arrived.

Shavat vayinafash. Now you are into the moment. Hold an image or a word in your mind and then . . . then it is time, depending on which meditation you are using, to strike the match, raise the Kiddush cup, or remove the cover from the challah and begin to bless.

Mark Dov Shapiro is Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA. He is the editor of Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, published in 2016 by CCAR Press.

Excerpted from Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and published in 2016 by CCAR Press.



Aspiring to Shabbat: Gates of Shabbat Revised

I think Shabbat is an aspiration.

I think Shabbat is also a brilliant, healing, gracious gift from our tradition.

But for most modern Jews, Shabbat is also not a given.  They/we “aspire” to the possibility of a day set aside.  They/we pretty much know what the world might feel like if we could enter the “Gates of Shabbat,” but it somehow doesn’t quite happen as much as we might wish it to be so.

All this is why I’ve taken a journey over the last few years along with several colleagues and friends to revise the book, Gates of Shabbat, which I helped create back in 1991.Gates of Shabbat Revised Edition Cover Image Final

To be honest, when Rabbi Hara Person first asked if I wanted to revisit Gates of Shabbat, I wasn’t sure what else to say about Shabbat that wasn’t already in the existing text.

Then I began to think and I realized that, although Shabbat remains Shabbat, the world around Shabbat has changed substantially in these last 25 years.  A changed world has to inspire new ways to engage the seventh day, and that is what emerged as Gates of Shabbat, Version 2.0…Version 2016 took shape.

Here are a few of the developments that my committee and I responded to as we developed the new book.

First, we noted that technology has transformed our lives in ways we couldn’t have anticipated years ago.  If we were “busy” in 1991, we are busier still today.  We are plugged in 24/7.  We are bombarded with news and connections to the world that have a life of their own.  Is it for good or is it all for bad?  I won’t tell you how we resolved the issue, but the new Gates of Shabbat does address the critical intersection of Shabbat and electronics.

Here’s a related development.  As a result of the Internet, we communicate differently.  A new kind of “literature” has developed.  People blog.  People tell stories.  People share first-person narratives about their experience in ways that were not a part of our lives earlier.  The new Gates of Shabbat will do the same.  We have assembled fourteen original reflections from both laypeople and rabbis.  Each small essay offers readers a new and personal way of encountering Shabbat.

And, of course, the world has changed insofar as new family constellations have become part of the landscape.  As expected, the new Gates of Shabbat will speak to those who are married with children, but it will also speak to households without children, to same-sex couples, to singles, and to a new growing population – those who are retired.  Here is a question that just didn’t occur to us 25 years ago:  What does Shabbat mean for retirees who are more less “free” every day?

Finally, these last 25 years have seen a new dimension of Jewish life emerge.  Or to put it more accurately, during these last few decades our liberal Jewish world has shown renewed interest in classic matters like spirituality and faith.  Meditation and mindfulness are part of our new vocabulary.  As a result, the new Gates of Shabbat introduces texts from Chasidic literature.  Readings from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Rabbi  Zalman Schachter-Shalomi are part of the mix.  You can even find several places in the new book entitled, Creating Holy Moments.  They are designed to help readers slow down and cultivate a deeper sense of k’dushah in Shabbat.


All in all, I hope Gates of Shabbat 2016 brings something refreshing and important to the search for Shabbat.  I believe the book can speak to vatikim because it contains what was best about the earlier volume along with the innovations mentioned above plus some wonderful new texts and readings.  I believe too that the book will read well for those who are considering the seventh day for the very first time.

Personally, I love the book because, among its many offerings, I continue to be moved by two very brief poems that capture my sense of Shabbat’s magic.

 a day



Mark Shapiro is Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA.  He is the editor of Gates of Shabbat, which is now available for pre-order and will be ready in time for Fall Classes.