Author Archives: Ari Goldman

Ari Goldman

About Ari Goldman

Ari L. Goldman, one of the nation's leading religion journalists, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of three books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard.

Preparing for Shabbat

Shabbat Preparation is a Weeklong Activity

One prepares for the Sabbath all week. In Hebrew the days of the week do not have names; they are all a launch pad for Shabbat. Sunday is the first day, Monday the second, and so on until Friday, which is both the sixth day and “the eve of Shabbat.”

being jewishIn anticipation of the Friday night meal, observant Jews tend to eat lighter meals during the daytime on Friday. There is also much to do. In fact, the more observant you are of the details of Shabbat, the more you have to prepare before it arrives. The late eminent scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik used to say that the true mark of a pious Jew is not that he or she is a shomer Shabbat (a Sabbath observer) but is shomer erev Shabbat (one who properly prepares on the eve of the Sabbath).

By traditional Jewish law, one cannot shop on the Sabbath, so marketing is usually done during the day on Friday. Cooking is prohibited on the Sabbath, so that must be done in advance, too. Foods prepared beforehand can be kept warm on a hot plate or on the stove, a condition that has led to a preference for certain hearty dishes like a meat-bean-and-potato stew called cholent.

cleaning for shabbatIn our home, we try to give our children special Sabbath eve responsibilities. Of course, there’s cleaning up their own rooms, but we also divide up family responsibilities like sweeping, or setting up the Sabbath candles. My daughter, Emma, loves art projects, so she is always willing to write and decorate place cards if we are having company for Shabbat dinner. My son Adam vacuums.

— Ari Goldman, a former
New York Times reporter, is the author of The Search for God at Harvard. Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon & Schuster.

Friday: Spiritual Preparation as Well

Some Jewish men, Chasidim in particular, go to the mikvah (ritual bath) on Friday afternoon. It is a lovely custom, for mik­vah not only symbolizes a spiritual cleansing, it also offers a few moments of private time to reflect, to relax, to disengage from the past week, to think about the coming experience of Shabbat. However, if their wives are home frenziedly preparing for Shab­bat, caring for eight kids, it’s not altogether fair, nor is it in the spirit of the day. Similarly, in those families where a woman has the leisure to sit in a beauty parlor for three hours on a Friday afternoon, while her husband is frantically winding up a hard week, there might be a better distribution of responsibility so that a man will have the time to come a bit more restfully into Shabbat.

Celebrating Shabbat in Many Ways

Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon & Schuster.

Technically, the laws of Shabbat [can seem] draconian. There are thirty-nine official “don’ts,” and they each have subcategories that add hundreds more. One cannot mow the lawn, hunt for food, light a fire, plant a seed, cook food, boil water, sew on a button, erect a tent, use a hammer, bake a cake, or gather kindling.

Derived from these ancient laws, a host of modern restrictions has been added by scholars, so now it is forbidden [according to Orthodox interpretation of the law] to turn on a computer, drive a car, flick on a light switch, talk on the phone, replace a battery, or watch television. The list is a long one. Conservative rabbis prohibit many of these same activities, but the level of observance among the Conservative laity is not as widespread as it is among the Orthodox. Reform rabbis, for the most part, say that these ancient restrictions are no longer binding, but they increasingly add that if people find meaning in the restrictions, they should incorporate them into their religious lives.

celebrating shabbatThere are, of course, many ways to celebrate Shabbat. Some people light candles at the appointed hour, and others do it later in the evening when everyone arrives home and gathers around the table. Some remain for a family meal, and others say a blessing and scatter. Some relax by watching a family movie on HBO, and others catch up on their reading. Some unplug the phone, and others use it to connect with relatives they’ve been missing all week. Some won’t touch a car; others will use it to go to synagogue. Some will drive to synagogue but not to the mall. Some will drive to the beach but not the mall. And there are those who go to the mall but not to the office.

The important thing about Sabbath observance is that you make the day different in big ways and in small ways. For example, I was brought up not to carry my wallet on the Sabbath, which is a good idea because it keeps me from carrying money and therefore from spending money. Shabbat is not a day for commerce. But everyone around me wore watches. Several years ago, when I was a reporter who lived by the watch, I stopped wearing my watch on the Sabbath. By the strict laws of Shabbat, there is nothing wrong with wearing a watch, but not wearing one liberated me from my enslavement to time. Shabbat gives us the opportunity one day a week to live for ourselves and not for the clock.

No Food Before Helping Those in Need

In telling this story, the author has extended the sense of tzedakah to include acts more properly designated gemilut chasadim [acts of lovingkindness], but the theological point is nonetheless clear. Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon & Schuster.

There is a story of a Hasidic master, Rabbi Meyer Hurwitz, who taught that the obligations of almsgiving were as great as the obligations of daily prayer. Just as a pious Jew does not eat until he or she prays, Rabbi Hurwitz would not eat until he did an act of charity. Usually this was easy. A beggar would approach him on his way to the synagogue. A congregant would need a word of encouragement. He would visit a sick neighbor or one in mourning. But one day, no one approached him. No one in his town was ill, and no one was in mourning. He went to his study and refused to eat all day. How could he take God’s food, he said, if he did not imitate God by giving to others?