More than I ever have been before (which is not saying much), I am filling with the spirit of Sabbath. Reading Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems series. Reviewing instructions for lighting Shabbat candles on YouTube. Desperately longing for a day off.
This lacks not in irony because I am about to travel to the other side of the state to take part in a weekend gathering of Unitarian Universalist seminarians who are meeting on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Add to this that I am not only attending, but am on the planning committee, so will be working double-overtime during, as well as before and after.
I was not raised in a family that took off a day of rest. Hell, we didn’t attend any religious worship even just for a morning! In the years before my atheist dad died, he was the music director at a small Presbyterian church and my mother played the organ – so irony continues to mix with religion in my life story. I kinda like it this way.
Serious observance of a spiritual day of rest was introduced to me by my beloved older brother and his family. They are Jewish and their observation of Shabbat, beginning on Friday night and ending an hour after sundown on Saturday, has been a part of their lives for over two decades now. During those twenty-plus years, I have had many occasions to be with them as they lit the Shabbat candles and said the welcoming prayers, drunk the grape juice, kept silence until bread, torn from the Challah loaf, has been eaten.
It has meant only those plans on Saturday that can be conducted by walking, by talking, by spending time together – but not by driving, or using money, or turning on lights (so they leave them on the night before), or by use of simple machine (such as writing utensils). Turns out basketball and card games, particularly cribbage, are definitely okay.
It has meant that if I come to visit them over the weekend, I arrive before Friday at sundown and don’t leave on Saturday before sundown. It has meant that when I planned my Friday night wedding a few years ago, we rented a house next door so that they could walk to where they would stay until Sunday morning, though we were long-gone on our honeymoon.
It has also meant that my brother and sister-in-law have spent many more hours interacting with their two sons (one an adult and out of the house, one a junior in high school) than anyone I know. The woven tapestry of their family life, though warped in some places (whose isn’t?), is tight and strong.
Tonight, as part of the worship at this seminarian gathering, I will be lighting the Shabbat candles. Over the years of spending Shabbat with my brother and his family, I have picked up some of the Hebrew blessings. But the version I mumble sounds good only to the Goyim – the non-Jews are impressed while the Jews wince.
Since this is a UU event, I am choosing to honor the ritual, while adapting it to its context (so, I think I’ll save those gathered from my Hebrew!).
One might think it strange to be lighting Shabbat candles when there is no intention of setting the day aside. Not to mention that the candle will be lit well after sundown, just given the schedule of events. When the roles for worship were handed out, no one volunteered for this element and it almost got taken out of the liturgy. I think the lack of interest largely had to do with lack of familiarity. Which doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to not include such a beautiful, resonant ritual.
So, given that I am not Jewish, but that I am Jew-ish (see poem), I volunteered. I advocated for its inclusion not only because it’s Friday night, but because – as Paul Oakley, a UU seminarian who is “an unambiguous non-Christian who [is] very closely linked to and influenced and inspired by things Jewish,” says,
I believe that our Sources, as defined in the UUA bylaws, indicate that we see ourselves as legitimately able to claim certain specified aspects of Christianity, Judaism, other World Religions, earth-based spirituality, Humanism, prophetic words and deeds wherever they come from, and direct experience of the mystery. So if we do not make intentional use of things related to each of these sources, we are, in effect, abridging our faith. (Facebook exchange, permission to use granted)
And though this gathering of UU seminarians will be busy, busy, busy on all three days typically identified as a spiritual day of rest, by lighting the candles and welcoming Spirit into our hearts and into our gathering community, we will seek to foster a sense of spiritual rest and openness in our hearts. We seek to join with the creative impulse of this world and this cosmos. We seek to be a part of that energy that Zelda names in the blessing I will say after the candles have been lit:
To light candles in all the worlds – that is Shabbat. To light Shabbat candles is a soul-leap pregnant with potential into a splendid sea, in it the mystery of the fire of sunset. Lighting the candles transforms my room into a river of light, my heart sets in an emerald waterfall.
May it be so.