Shabbat and Meditation: Just Be It

How Mindfulness Can Deepen Your Shabbat Experience...and Vice Versa

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The Sensation of Stopping

In religiously-observant homes, Friday afternoon is usually a hectic time. Food to prepare, emails to answer, floors to clean--it can get to be a little much, especially if you've been at work all day, or dealing with the kids. But then, when the candles are lit, a change takes place. Now there's nothing to do. What's done is done, what isn't isn't, and Shabbat is here. Whatever your Shabbat practice, I encourage you to try lighting candles before sunset as a way to mark this important transition. Don't worry about doing it right; the main thing is to do it. Find a corner of your home which isn't cluttered, set up a candlestick or two, and light. Close your eyes as you recite the blessing (if it's your practice to do so; otherwise just close your eyes) and keep them closed for just five seconds more. Listen to the sounds around you--you have no responsibility for them, nothing to grab or to push away; just let them wash over you like an incidental symphony. Notice your body: see if there's tension in your face, or your back, that you can just....relax. And take a nice, full breath, feeling the delicious sensation of inhaling and exhaling--an ordinary pleasure we're too busy to enjoy.

On Shabbat, it's said that we receive neshama yeteira, an extra soul. The word for soul here, neshama, is related to the word for breath, neshima. If you like, welcome in this "extra soul" that comes purely from being able to relax.

Open your eyes slowly, letting them feast on the visual sensation of the candle, or candles, burning. Focus on the light of the candle, not with a rigid wall of attention, but with an intention of receiving--of kabbalat shabbat. Just let it be whatever it will be. The secret of spirituality is that there's no right way, no special feeling you're supposed to have--only an open, loving relationship to any feeling, any sensation. Did a car honk just as you lit? Did your baby cry? No problem. As one of my teachers says, "it's not what's going on--it's how you relate to it."

Take as long as you like to linger over the Shabbat candles. It's okay to be late to whatever comes next. See if, just by removing the sense of "what has to get done," you can perceive their light with a bit more clarity than usual.

Moments of Silence

Since I do not use electricity on Shabbat, my home is much quieter on Saturdays than it is the rest of the week. No music, no TV, no computers--even in the noise of the city, my home is an island of silence. This silence extends, in traditional observance, to many parts of Shabbat--for example, in between ritually washing the hands and making the motzi blessing over bread. Ordinarily, silence can feel uncomfortable, and indeed, many people work hard to fill up these moments of quiet with songs or gestures of conversation. But silence is just like the essence of Shabbat, and meditation: not making, not doing--but being.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.