During this period of reflective thought, there is one issue that, in my opinion, stands out. And that is the issue of Sabbath observance within the Jewish world. The rabbis of the Talmud placed the Sabbath at the forefront of all the commandments, and essentially as the lodestone of Jewish identity. Sabbath observance brought with it personal trust and cooperation in all social and religious matters in Jewish life.
During the last two centuries of Jewish history, first in Eastern Europe and later in the United States and the West, the Sabbath slipped away from the grasp of millions of Jews. There were many reasons for this occurrence – financial, the dislocation of immigration and new countries of residence, ignorance of the Jewish story, the allure of a militantly secular society that apparently was the wave of the future, etc.
But the bottom line was that the absence of the Sabbath led inexorably to assimilation, intermarriage and the loss of Jewish identity, self-worth and family structure. Saturday became Tuesday for most American and Western Jews. Instead of a day of rest, family bonding and physical, mental and spiritual renewal, it became a day of shopping and carpools. The Sabbath disappeared completely from the lives and schedules of most American Jews.
The great synagogues, especially of the non-Orthodox, remained largely empty on the Sabbath as Jews preferred the golf course to prayer and study. Even the desperate measure of officially allowing Jews to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath failed to save the synagogue and certainly contributed to the death knellof the Sabbath. The disappearance of the Sabbath, as the single most unifying feature of Jewish society, resulted in a fractured, confused and spiritually empty Jewish community.
In Israel, though Sabbath observance is certainly not universal, Sabbath recognition is. Saturday is the official day of rest in the country, most commercial enterprises do not operate on that day, and Friday night family dinners remain a custom embedded in Israeli life. A noticeable return to Jewish observance and values has occurred in Israeli life over the last number of decades. The trend towards tradition is noticeable almost everywhere in the country.
There are various reasons for this change in attitude but one of the main, driving forces for this societal trend is the realization that in order for Israel to survive and continue to prosper it must have a unifying basis to hold it together. Throughout Jewish history, the Sabbath has served as that unifier for Jewish society. As the often-quoted aphorism has it: “More then the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept and preserved the Jews.”
Scattered throughout the world, subject to prejudice and persecution, the universal observance of the Sabbath united Jews the world over and gave them the physical and spiritual strength to survive and prevail. Here in Israel, this realization of the power of the Sabbath and of its value in protecting and promoting a message of positive Judaism and of a better world has sparked a revival. More and more Israelis are keeping the Sabbath and making it an integral part of general Jewish society here. We still have a long way to go in restoring the Sabbath to its proper place of honor and observance, but the trend to do so is clear and unmistakable.
Last year, under the initiative of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, South African Jewry observed and commemorated a Sabbath that embraced all of South African Jewry. The experience was electrifying. It rekindled a long dormant spark of Jewish memory, tradition and spirituality within tens of thousands of Jews. It gave them a sense of unity and belonging. By restoring the Sabbath in their lives – even just one Sabbath – it served as a recommitment to Jewish identity and community.
This South African Sabbath project is now being replicated in many communities throughout the United States, Western and Eastern Europe and even here in Israel. All Jews should participate in one fashion or another in this noble and historic endeavor. Hosts and guests, Jews from all walks of life and differing value systems, have the opportunity to join together to unite the Jewish people. It is an opportunity to bring much-needed serenity, hope, optimism, a sense of history, tradition and family bonding to our generation – a generation that so needs these blessings on a regular basis.
The Sabbath is recognized in Jewish tradition as being a gift from God Himself, so to speak, to Israel and through Israel to the world at large. Our greatest accomplishment in this coming new year of goodness and blessing will be the strengthening of the Sabbath commitment amongst all Jews.
Ktiva v’chatima tova
Rabbi Berel Wein