Getting Shabbos Right

By Mayer Schiller


Photo: Menachem Adelman/Meoros Hashabbos

Photo: Menachem Adelman/Meoros Hashabbos


I am often asked by talmidim on Sunday morning, “Rebbi, how was your Shabbos?”

This question is, I know, meant as just a pleasant greeting. The required answer is simply some form ofBaruch Hashem. Nothing more need be said. Yet, I always find the question an intriguing one. Its literal sense is a compelling exhortation to some serious cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching). How, indeed, was my Shabbos? How have I emerged from it?

Shabbos is a time to open our hearts and minds to Hashem and His Torah. It is a time to do this within the bosom of family, friends and the general community. It is on Shabbos that the great truths of existence may be absorbed and impressed upon us with a force that is capable of enduring the myriad confusions of weekday life. And so the question presents itself: how is this spiritual penetration of heart and mind to be achieved?

It is due to these considerations that I will usually answer talmidim when asked about my Shabbos that it “depends how you do it” or “you have to get Shabbos right.”

I realize that there are those reading this who may say that getting Shabbos right simply means fulfilling its halachic requirements. In keeping with the spirit of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim, it is important to note that yes, there is theological truth to this statement. The compliance with the laws of Shabbos is, in and of itself, transformative. It uplifts the soul and unleashes much spiritual blessing into the cosmos even if we only dimly experience the process. But this halachic compliance is only the structure of shemiras Shabbos. Its essence requires far more.

To begin with, it is worth noting that the process of realizing Shabbos begins long before candle lighting. The custom of yeshivahs and of many individuals to devote extra time to learning on Thursday night is linked to the desire to irrigate our neshamos with Torah as Shabbos approaches. Friday is crucial to experiencing an appropriate Shabbos. Even the physical preparation tasks are meaningful, to the degree that we do them with a sense of the impending holiness of the day and the desire to receive it. But beyond the physical preparations, the spiritual tasks of Friday are particularly necessary.

As to Shabbos itself, the rule of thumb is: there is now more time, let us, therefore, make the best of it.

There are many customs that can transform Friday into erev Shabbos. Going over the parashah (twice mikraand once targum and/or with Rashi) is done by many specifically on erev Shabbos (with some Chassidim and Sephardim wearing tefillin while doing so). Many go to the mikvah and recite or learn Shir HaShirim (with its allegory of love between God and His people) as the Shabbos draws near. Beyond these customs, though, lies the directive noted in both sifrei halachah and mussar to use the time before Shabbos as a period of introspection (cheshbon hanefesh). This may be done by actually setting aside a specific time and place for religious stock-taking, or simply mentally, while going about the other physical and spiritual preparations for the day.

As to Shabbos itself, the rule of thumb is: there is now more time, let us, therefore, make the best of it. This applies, obviously, to prayer, where the unhurried pace allows for a greater investment of mind and heart. This is lost should the longer and slower prayers be seen as an opportunity to come late to shul or catch up with friends. Especially during Kabbalas Shabbos we must focus, for we are welcoming the rarefied Shabbos air. Thus transformed, there are also the social aspects of Shabbos, whether one talks about Torah or engages simply in the very human but also holy activity of keeping up with friends, their lives and feelings.

The seudos are in many ways the centerpiece of Shabbos for the family. They offer a unique combination of prayer and song, words of Torah, reflections on matters of spiritual and social gravity and simple human bonding. What is delicate and difficult is to achieve the proper balance of all the above. To preserve the sense that these are holy rituals where frivolity is inappropriate, and at the same time maintain a sense of calm joy, requires work and mental preparation. Discussion of current affairs of the Jewish people and of humanity in general is in keeping with the spirit of Shabbos, provided that these matters are approached with suitable gravity and compassion. Similarly, singing zemiros is not a time for silliness but for cleaving to God and Shabbos holiness. Personally, I find that it is most important to disentangle the songs from the Shabbos foods and divrei Torah. Each merits the focus of all present.

One of the most moving passages in a most beautiful book, Herman Wouk’s This Is My God—a work that enchanted me in my own early steps towards Orthodoxy—is the description of a Shabbos meal.

The boys, knowing that the Sabbath is the time for asking questions, have asked them. The Bible, the encyclopedia, the atlas, have piled on the table. We talk of Judaism, and there are the usual boys’ queries about God which my wife and I field clumsily, but as well as we can. For me it is a retreat into restorative magic.

Then there is the matter of Shabbos “down time.” Here it is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer. There are the perpetual questions about playing board games or some variety of Bobby Orr Hockey. On a more ethereal level loom the doubts concerning “secular” literature, newspapers (Jewish or other). Once again, I think the answer lies in who we are when engaging in any of the above. Surely we want to spend some, most, or all of our time in explicit talmud Torah, but any of the above, kept in proper proportion and pursued aware of the Divine source of all wisdom and mundane joy may be dabbled in.

The enemy of all the above is hergel—the dull temptation to coast, to strip life of passion and warmth. It is the implacable foe of the spirit and it becomes stronger as we age. Shabbos is a taste of the Afterlife. Just as the latter requires a lifetime of preparation, so does Shabbos. May Hashem grant that we be worthy of this pivotal task.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller is mashgiach ruchani and maggid shiur in Yeshiva University High School for Boys and general studies teacher in Mesivta Beth Shraga in Monsey, New York.


This article was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Action.
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