Shabbat and Meditation: Just Be It

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

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I suggest giving yourself random moments of silence throughout Shabbat. When you find your mind is running off somewhere, or the conversation has gotten louder than you really want--just pause. Let your body come into stillness, again relaxing any involuntary tensions that may have arisen. Take an artificial breath--a full, deep inhale, and an exhalation, with a sigh, that really clears out the lungs. And listen--not to the silence, since it probably won't be totally silent--but to the silence of non-doing. Let the world be transparent to you, not colored by changes or preferences--just what it is. If you're with other people, it's okay if they think you're weird; if you do this practice enough, you'll learn to become so instantly relaxed that they'll be jealous.

But relaxation is only the gateway. Try, in each moment of silence, to actually notice something you hadn't noticed before: the quality of light, or your mood, or your feelings for another person. Maybe a scent, or a touch, or a presence of mind. Do this as often as you like--several times an hour, if you really like it. Just pause, relax, and drop into a kind of awareness that is normally the province of poetry.

Oneg Shabbos: Deepening Pleasure

Meditation isn't about feeling good all the time--that's narcotics, not spirituality. But, nu, it doesn't hurt to feel good either, right? On Shabbat, to enjoy life is actually a mitzvah. You might've heard that sex is a "double mitzvah" on Shabbat. Well, it's true; sex is a mitzvah on its own, and on Shabbat, since it's enjoyable, it's also a mitzvah of oneg shabbat, enjoying Shabbat.

Oneg Shabbat--in the Ashkenazic pronunciation, oneg shabbos--extends well beyond the bedroom, though. Here, Judaism actively invites delight in the senses (in eating and drinking and taking long naps) as well as in the soul (learning and reading and praying). In less opulent times, simply having a bit of chicken soup would have been a delectable and rare treat. Nowadays, though, I think we have to make an effort to enjoy. With so many improved means for unimproved ends, we probably have too many pleasures, not too few. And the result is less enjoyment of any.

Thus, oneg shabbos--becoming ever more exquisitely attuned to pleasure--takes some effort. Suppose you're about to take that first bite of hallah on Friday night. Make the hallah the subject of meditation. Hold it in your hand, notice its feel, its smell. When you eat it, don't scarf it all down right away; chew it ten, twenty, even thirty times, tasting the doughiness, the silkiness of it. Let yourself enjoy it the way you would a gourmet meal--why not? The neshama yeteira doesn't come from magic; it comes from attention.

Or when you're praying, don't cram in as many words to as few minutes as possible. Stretch it out; if you don't get to the whole service, so what? Delight in each poetic phrase, or a single lofty topic of contemplation. It's said of one Hasidic rabbi that, one day, he never got past the first three words of the prayer service--modeh ani lefanecha, thankful am I before You--because he was so awed at being in the presence of the Divine.

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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.