“And the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath”, says the sidra (Ex. 31:16). So important is Shabbat that one of the questions in my Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah test is, “What happens in a Jewish home on Friday evening?”
The boy to whom I put this question the other day wanted to know, “Whose home do you mean – mine or someone else’s?” “Yours”, I said, and he gave a description that impressed me. I wish every home could be at least as impressive.
Many homes sometimes have a nice meal, even with candle-lit table, a good tablecloth and even wine with the meal. But if there is no Shabbat dimension, the meal, however nice, is only a meal. Shabbat is value-added. The point is illustrated by a story in the Talmud.
Once the emperor Hadrian was a guest of Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Chananya on a Shabbat eve (relationships with Romans, especially on an intellectual level, were often very cordial). The rabbi’s family gave the emperor the customary Shabbat feast, accompanied by Kiddush, Z’mirot, Divrei Torah, festivity and joy. The emperor had never seen anything like it even at a State dinner.
Returning to the palace, he assembled his cooks and ordered them to replicate the menu. The result was not bad, but there was definitely something lacking. So he summoned Rabbi Y’hoshua. “I don’t understand it,” he told the rabbi. “The royal kitchens use the best ingredients and the table looks magnificent. But the meal in your simple house was much more enjoyable!”
“Your Majesty,” replied Rabbi Y’hoshua, “Your meals lack a spice the Shabbat spice, which gives all our food and drink a unique flavour.” “Where can I buy this spice?” asked the emperor. “I am afraid, Your Majesty,” came the answer, “that this special flavour is for those who keep the Sabbath holy, doing no manner of work and dedicating the day to God. For anyone for whom the day is not Shabbat it has no effect.”
How many Jews turn Friday evening into Shabbat? In Australia the figure is about 65%, quite a respectable percentage. But the other 35% are not only missing the Sabbath spice.
The odds are that their week has no pinnacle, their family life lacks colourful occasions for togetherness, their Jewish continuity is in question. They can belong to Jewish organisations, sit on committees, give to good causes, be proud of Israel, resent antisemitism, read Jewish newspapers but Judaism is a hands-on, participatory experience, and top of the list is a Friday night that is Shabbat.