Ki Tissa: Shabbat in Jerusalem

“V’shamru v’nai Yisrael et ha Shabbat, la’asot et ha Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam….” The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time:  Ex. 31:16 

This familiar Saturday morning Kiddush verse comes from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa.  But the Torah says relatively little about how the Sabbath is to be observed. The body of Jewish writings on this subject is vast, as is Halachah.  But rather than discuss ideas this week, I thought that I would share how I typically fulfill the mitzvah of Shabbat observance when I am living in the Jewish capital city. I’ll also provide some description of what I experience in a place where Shabbat observance is the norm.

In my community of friends and acquaintances, as undoubtedly most others in Jerusalem, Shabbat is not only a “religious” holiday but the social highlight of the week.  Friday dinner and Saturday lunch invitations are usually calendared weeks in advance.  By Wednesday, I will have asked the host or hostess what I should bring, and whether it should be dairy or parve.  Sometimes I’ll be asked to prepare something to say about the Torah portion, especially if there will be other rabbi guests to participate in a discussion.  

In Israel, Friday is the first day of the weekend.  After morning minyan (synagogue), I head to the Mahane Yehuda shuk to buy what my host/hostess has requested, a few last minute items, and the expanded weekend edition of the Jerusalem Post.  The shuk is so jammed on Fridays (see photo of a relatively uncrowded section!) that I’ve learned to do my own main shopping on the traditional Jewish market days of Monday and Thursday.  Walking home, I’ll pass one or more Friday morning sidewalk arts and craft fares.  This is a good place to buy (or order custom) gifts and souvenirs. 

A few hours before the onset of Shabbat, traffic dwindles and, most noticeably, the buses (and light rail) stop running.  The city seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief.  As dusk and candle-lighting time approach, a siren can be heard throughout central Jerusalem.  This is the modern version of the shofar blast from the Temple Mount that once announced Shabbat’s arrival.   (Excavations revealed the inscribed stone marker, pushed off the wall when the Romans destroyed the Temple.  Seeing this actual marker is, for me, very moving -- a visible, tangible connection to our ancient history). 

Hearing the siren, I fill an electric Shabbat urn with water and plug it in, decide which one or two lights to leave on throughout Shabbat (or, if possible, connect to a timer), check my email one last time, and turn off my computer and Iphone for the only time during the week.   I light candles, say Kiddish and blessings,  and move the candles into the bathtub or a deep sink to safely burn out.  Sometimes I’ll walk to the Kotel to feel the special atmosphere as Shabbat arrives, and try to imagine how it was in that spot 2,000 years ago.  

If I don’t go to the Kotel, there’s a seemingly limitless choice of synagogues of all “types” within a short walk of my apartment.  Most often, though, I head to Shira Hadasha, a unique “Egalitarian, Feminist Orthodox” congregation which meets in a civic auditorium.   It’s wonderful to participate as about two hundred men and the same number of women enthusiastically sing the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat songs and prayers. (Men and women sit side-by-side with a thin curtain in between, which is drawn during prayer but opened during the D’var Torah, announcements, etc.  In this Orthodox congregation, women have aliyot, read from the Torah, teach, lead services, etc.)

Friday night dinner is always a pleasant and sumptuous affair, with lively conversation among 7-10 participants usually followed by the singing of traditional Shabbat zemirot and, of course, the Birkat Hamazon.   The walk home through quiet, car-less streets is especially serene – unless it is raining, as umbrellas are generally not used on Shabbat (it being considered erecting a shelter).

On Shabbat morning, I head to my home synagogue, Moreshet Yisrael.   It’s one of three “Masorti” (Conservative) congregations in Jerusalem.   Like Shira Hadasah, it is egalitarian, but also has mixed seating with no m’hitzah.   Moreover, as a congregation catering to English speakers, the rabbi delivers the d’var Torah first in Hebrew, then in English.   During the Amidah, we stand facing the direction of where the Holy of Holies once stood “just down the street.” 

It’s not too unusual for one or more pray-ers to have arrived with a rifle, and the congregation’s prayers always include the welfare of Israeli’s soldiers.  Without them, the rabbi reminds us, neither peaceful Shabbats nor a State of Israel would be possible.

After a nice kiddush and schmooze with friends, I walk home alongside people returning from my synagogue, the nearby Great Synagogue, and other schuls.  Their conversations are in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Spanish, English and perhaps other languages.  What a international city of Jews (among others) this!   Occasionally, a skateboarder coasts by enjoying the empty bus lanes.

After lunch, my practice is to either rest/read/study or walk to the Israel Museum for the afternoon.  Depending on time of year, this walk can be cold, very pleasant, or brutally hot!  I make sure to bring a snack, as no food service is available on Shabbat; nor could I spend money to buy it (I have an annual pass, so needn’t buy admission.  For guests who do not wish to activate the electronic turnstile, a guard opens a low gate). 

If you haven’t been to the Israel Museum, this may give you a sense of its scale:  There are seven main exhibition buildings.  Last summer I went there on seven consecutive Shabbat afternoons, taking the time to look at everything.  I only made it through the first third of the first building!!!  I also like to sit gazing at the large reconstruction of Jerusalem just decades before the Second Temple's destruction.  If I'm fortunate, an English-speaking guide will bring a group by and I'll learn something more about our city's fascinating history.   

If I haven’t gone to the Israel Museum or rested at home with the Post and some study material, I walk through the Old City or just anywhere to enjoy the serenity of Shabbat.   Jerusalem is a wonderfully “walkable” city, and on Shabbat afternoons in good weather it seems as though half or more of its residents are strolling.   Haredi men wear long coats and large fur hats (even in summer.  On occasion, I walk through the eerily deserted shuk just to experience the remarkable contrast to the previous day.   

By late afternoon, one can feel the pulse of the city beginning to revive, as traffic picks-up.  If I did not go to the Kotel to welcome the Shabbat Queen the previous evening, I like to go there as Shabbat departs.  I join one of the small, brief Havdalah ceremonies taking place.  I know that there will be fresh mint sprigs that I can inhale to lessen the sorrow of my “extra soul” leavng me for the next six days.   If not the Kotel, I may duck into any synagogue (many are tiny and beautiful inside) or even into a large hotel; hotel lobbies and waiting areas are usually filled with people anticipating Motzei Shabbat, and a havdalah service generally takes place in a room on the ground floor.   

Shabbat has departed.  Soon, the buses will start running again.  Many restaurants and stores will reopen for a few hours.  Shavuah tov! 

In his wonderful small book, The Sabbath: Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world."

Shabbat is special in Jerusalem, but we can make it special anywhere.  May your Shabbat observance celebrate this wonderful gift of holy time.   

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  • Ki Tissa: Shabbat in Jerusalem

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Jewish Proverb