Every Thursday evening, one of us inevitably declares, “Tomorrow is Shabbat.” My husband, our son and I each smile, feeling a bit of new warmth inside, because we know the huge unspoken meaning behind those three weekly words.
Shabbat is rest, comfort, family, laughing so hard it hurts, sitting quietly for hours and enjoying gorgeous food. It’s also often relief — putting another week behind us, and letting go of the old with a nod to each other that acknowledges “we got through it!” And as a disabled mom balancing my health and my family’s wellbeing, getting through it can feel like the biggest win of all.
Our family works hard. I am severely disabled from a sudden brain bleed when I was 30 years old. Since then I have had to live on full-time bed rest, with rare outings in a wheelchair. My husband and I had to do a hard steer to find new ways of managing our family, which included home educating our son, now 15. Ensuring our family is still able to live a wonderfully full life has always been my first thought. Observing Shabbat has provided my family with much needed stability, and most of all, peace.
Our family has been observing Shabbat for five years now, and I can sincerely say that it has transformed our lives for the better. I am a patrilineal Jew by birth, but I was unaware of this heritage growing up because my father had been adopted away from his Jewish birth family. Upon the death of my father’s adoptive parents, our history was discovered. By this point, my father had already passed away, but I was fortunate enough to become close to his birth family. After studying Judaism extensively, my husband, son and I knew that it was the right path for us. We began observing Judaism five years ago, and we eventually each chose to formally convert.
Sharing a weekly routine with each other has brought us closer together. Our observance of Shabbat has evolved as we have grown in our faith and I am sure that the future holds new traditions still. But as much as we love the rituals of our Shabbat, even more so, it is what Shabbat has come to mean to us that makes it something we look forward to every week.
The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides said, “Shabbat allows every person, small or great, to enjoy a full seventh of their lives in rest from toil and troubles.” I believe this rest is a fundamental human right, and not only that, but it is necessary for the whole wellbeing of a person.
Fridays are spent wrapping up work and messages until around 4 or 5 p.m., when we get together and, if I’m well enough, have a wonderful set of rituals that have stuck over time. We light the Shabbat candles and my husband and I bless our son and each other, holding hands as a family and taking turns praying. Often there’s the Kiddush cup of grape juice and the tzedakah box for the spare coins. This is a wonderful time for the three of us to sit still together and emotionally connect after an inevitably busy week. We talk about what’s on our minds, share a bit of what’s important to us and reminisce over the past week.
These rituals have also been opportunities to smooth over hurt feelings. We can reaffirm how much we love each other and appreciate all the ways we support each other, and remember how blessed we are. We think about those near and dear to us and the wider community. Whenever possible, my husband and son bake the most delicious (vegan!) challah bread, and we tear into the warm loaf by the candlelight; it’s a very cosy and fun time.
We have to accept that due to health issues, how much of this we can do each week varies. On good weeks we do it all, and we feel especially blessed, although many weeks we simply wish each other “Shabbat Shalom!” and hold hands for a short prayer. If I have been unwell on Friday, then we will light our candles and go through our Shabbat routine on Saturday. This in itself is part of the relaxation that Shabbat provides. Always, we release ourselves and each other from the responsibilities we bear during the week. It’s when we stop our daily grind that we can best appreciate how much we carry, how truly busy we are. Great runners know how to pace themselves, and that’s what our life is like. Respecting the rest of Shabbat helps me to prevent burning out, which is not just crucial for me, but for my family, too.
It’s not always easy switching off. We try to minimize social media and technology in general. Our lives are already full to bursting living in a turbulent age, but for this time, we are together around the tranquillity of the candles, bonding with a ceremony that has been continued throughout the millennia, looking backward but also planning forward, enforcing rest that we might all recharge for the coming week. It’s a practice from which all of society might benefit.
As Ahad Ha’am, the Jewish poet and philosopher said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” That couldn’t be more true for my family.