When a Queen Called Shabbat Knocks at the Door

Is not the sun red at sunrise and at sunset? [It is red] at sunrise, because it passes by the roses of the Garden of Eden; at sunset, because it passes the gate of Gehenna. Others reverse the answer (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 84a)

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A question I am asking myself once in a while is: Why do I observe the Shabbat? What sense does it make? It is not, after all, that there are no other things to do on a Shabbat – quite the opposite, the Shabbat knocks at my door, inevitably and without invitation, and piles of work-not-done remain where they are, for 25 hours, as if deadlines and schedules were a joke, as if the entire mechanism of a global capitalist economy could be put on a hold without the batting of an eye. So why?

Some will say the obvious: Jews keep the Shabbat, because this is what God has commanded them to do. This sounds reason enough, to be sure, yet to me, such an answer is a little too “big” to make sense, too distant in time and place, too abstract. What does it mean, that God has commanded something? Where am I, as a woman living in 21st century Berlin, and where is that burning bush, I mean…come on…

A while ago, I have asked my husband for the reason of his Shabbat-observance. He answered that “this is what my mothers and fathers have done, so this is what I am and do, too” – an answer, which to me specifically was not satisfying, as my mothers and fathers surely have not done this. Yet as time passed by, I got it: When observing the commandments of the Shabbat, I become a heir of his mothers and fathers, too, and their mothers and fathers, and their mothers and fathers. The Shabbat is a connecting bond between me, and my husband’s ancestors in Yemen; it makes me part of their history, back in time and space. Of course, there are oceans and mountains between my world and theirs – there is, from a technical point of view, hardly a thing that “my” Shabbat has is common with “their” Shabbat, let alone with the Shabbatot of their ancestors, let alone with the Shabbatot which a group of Jews in 6th century Babylonia had in mind.

But still: There remains a bond, consisting of a set of rules, which makes me part of a larger whole: The pile of work-not-done at sunset, the hasty preparations before sunset, the prayers, the Torah-portion, the time-off, the being-thrown-back with your immediate surroundings. No trade, no money, no news beyond that, which happens here right now. Many small little things, some a little odd and superfluous, add up to make a Shabbat, and that Shabbat becomes part of my life and that of my children, as it became part of the lives of those before me. And here we go: When I will leave this world, I will know at least that: I was not alone, but was part of a community of people, connected beyond times and places, who have set their eyes, in whatever circumstances, at the sunset at Friday evenings. The burning bush seems a little less distant this way.

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