Shabbat – a Day of Rest!?

I wanted to have a deep cultural experience, so I turned down the university’s offer to live in the dorms. I now live in the center of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, in an ultra/orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Sharing a small room with two Jewish women, there is not much room for privacy[1], but rather for adaptation on my part.

One of the cultural and, more importantly, religious traditions that amazed – and, frankly, challenged me as a non-Jew – is the weekly day of rest. Unlike Sunday for Christians and Friday for Muslims, Jews celebrate Saturday, called “Shabbat”. It begins on Friday evening at sundown and ends on Saturday evening with the appearance of the first three stars.

In the Bible (Jewish and Christian) it is one of the ten commandments to have this day of rest. I was aware of this commandment[2] – but I had no idea how important it is for some orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews until I moved to Israel for my exchange semester. In Jerusalem, this commandment is taken very seriously. To give a few examples: there is no public transportation in the city on Shabbat (except for buses and taxis in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem) so many streets are almost empty, stores are closed[3], and public life in general seems to stop for one day a week.

“Cool, a day to chill and netflix – something I don’t have much time for during my busy week” was my first thought. But I soon learned otherwise: all electronic devices must be turned off for the entire duration of Shabbat. In addition, Shabbat requires a lot of preparation: the house must be cleaned, and all the food for Shabbat (the tastiest of the week which is saved for this special day) is bought at the nearby market and prepared in advance. These preparations can easily fill one day.

At first, I was looking forward to a day of rest – on my terms. Then I was disappointed and overwhelmed by all the rules and preparations associated with Shabbat.

Now I find a hybrid form – respecting my Orthodox Jewish roommates’ beliefs and still resting in a way that suits my personal needs:

I enjoy spending time with international friends of whom many live in the university´s dormitories, but since there is no public transportation there that day, I take my bicycle and ride there (riding a bicycle is not allowed by Orthodox law – as the bicycle could break and the act of repairing it would be considered work and that again would violate the commandment to rest on Shabbat). After meeting my international friends, I join my Jewish friends in the neighborhood for a delicious Shabbat meal and I am regularly overwhelmed by their warm hospitality. The meals on Shabbat are delicious and accompanied by long prayers in Hebrew. I didn’t expect Jewish people to enjoy drinking so much: red wine or “Arak” – the national alcoholic beverage – are an integral part of the Shabbat meals I have been invited to. Sometimes on Sabbath, I will accompany my Jewish friends to the synagogue. These visits are unique for me, and so far, I have participated twice in the circumcision of an 8-day-old baby boy, called “Brit Mila”. Once I experienced a “Bar-Mizwa”, which is a religious form of rites of passage.

Besides Shabbat meals and Synagogue visits, we take a walk together in the nearby park or sit in the garden and enjoy the warmth of the sunshine, drinking tea or playing board games while eating kosher desserts. Towards the end of Shabbat, I go for a walk alone in the park and take my cell phone, turning it on before the official end of Shabbat to call family and friends in Switzerland. Turning off my cell phone for – almost – a day was completely unfamiliar to me, but I am beginning to experience it as relaxing. In fact, I have thoughts about continuing this Jewish practice once I am back in Switzerland.

Living with Orthodox Jews in an ultra/orthodox neighborhood was quite a challenge at first, but this participation in a different culture makes me at the same time become more aware of my own values.

[1] I noticed that privacy as well as independence seem to be values that I cherish, as I only realized in this living situation in Israel.

[2] It says “Remember the Sabbath day (…). Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work“ (Exodus 20: 8-9).

[3] In the Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the internationally known term “24/7” in connection with the opening hours of shops is modified to “24/6”.

Nadini Tanner

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