By Sam Glaser
I am who I am thanks to Shabbat. Thanks to this biblically mandated ancient institution I have peace of mind, a flourishing community, a great relationship with my spouse and children and a career where I traverse the country singing its praises. I always enjoyed Shabbat as a kid. Our Friday night dinners were filled with singing, great food and extended family. But the real magic of Shabbat was revealed only when I dove into the supernal pool of these twenty-five hour weekly rest days with total abandon, no turning back.
I was advised early on not to tell anyone that I was Shomer Shabbat (fully Sabbath observant) until I was all the way there. Otherwise I might get caught weaseling out of a family function that I didn’t really want to attend but making an exception for a reunion concert of a favorite rock band. It took me six years once I began the process of learning about the intricacies of Shabbat and actually taking it on 100%. I’m glad I did the baby-step routine; it made every hour that I added onto my sacred day a personal discovery, a triumph.
I found that there is a power in “closing the loop,” creating a new reality by taking on Shabbat in all of it’s facets regardless of any extenuating circumstances. I guess it’s a bit like the institution of marriage, but here the spouse to whom you are promising fidelity is the Creator of the Universe. I describe this level of commitment as the difference between inflating a balloon with helium that is perforated versus one that is intact. Try to fill a balloon with holes and it never gets off the ground. But when you close up that last escape hatch for that gas to escape, you now possess a craft that can fly to the highest atmosphere. I didn’t really understand this until I was “in.” Strange as it sounds, I have found that building an unbreakable relationship with Shabbat has allowed me to soar, to dwell in a parallel universe.
When you meet someone who has become Sabbath Observant you can be pretty sure you are dealing with someone of bulletproof integrity. Someone whose word is his or her bond, who can handle commitment. Sabbath observers typically have inculcated the value of restraint, of postponing gratification for a greater good. Now when an exciting outing or a gig opportunity will trample my holy Sabbath, there can be only one answer. Ask any Ba’al Teshuva (one who has taken on Jewish tradition) if they can imagine life without Shabbat. I can guarantee you that he or she wouldn’t trade this precious weekly taste of paradise for the world.
Every week our home is whitewashed: sheetschanged, floors scrubbed and a fresh batch of flowers festoons even the bathrooms. We wear our best clothes, enjoy a multi-course feast in the dining room with our crystal goblets and polished silver, singing songs both sacred and secular and offering words of Torah. We also do a lot of laughing together, play board and card games and tell stories. Of course, when we have guests we take the meal up a notch, drink l’chaims and go around the table so guests can introduce themselves and perhaps mention something special from the past week for which they are grateful. Thanks to my incredible wife, our Shabbat table is the stuff of Pico-Robertson legend and I’m told that obtaining an invite is considered an “E-ticket” opportunity.
We are members of four synagogues in our unusual neighborhood and I do my best to “shul-hop” based on my mood, a sudden intuition or whichever shul among the fifty within walking distance has a special speaker or simcha. Happily, wherever I show up I am usually coaxed into leading the davening. I generally say yes regardless of my level of exhaustion. There are lots of things that one can’t do on Shabbat. I can tell you now that our community is very busy doing the things you can! That’s eating, drinking, praying, shmoozing, spending time with family and perhaps most importantly, taking a much needed, luxurious nap on Saturday afternoon.
Our family has no physical record of any Shabbat or Holiday celebration for the past few decades. No photos of my wife’s beautifully set tables, videos of our raucous singing or transcription of the many scintillating discussions. Shabbat is truly an island in time, a dimension that cannot be grasped with cameras or recording devices. It is the stuff of ephemera and it would make little sense to attempt to commemorate the experience to be enjoyed later on. You won’t find a Shabbat photo album or a video of a Glaser seder. Funny how these special days are ineffable, transient and yet are the most real things in our lives.
Thanks to the extensive preparation required, Shabbat is something that we celebrate all week. My wife saves her best recipes for the festive meals and spends the week planning the guest list and visiting various markets and bakeries for ingredients. I read the weekly Torah portion while eating my cereal each morning so that I am in sync with the entire Jewish world and have something novel to share at my Shabbat meals. I make sure the dry cleaning is picked up by Friday so that we all have our Shabbas clothes pressed and ready. When we do all these things, we try to keep the awareness that these mundane weekly activities are done l’kavod Shabbat (to honor Shabbat.) I must admit that I also binge on my work on Wednesday and Thursday nights knowing that I have Shabbat coming to catch up on my sleep.
Becoming Shomer Shabbat requires a temporal shift in the perspective of one’s week. This is hinted to in the laws regarding Havdalah, the ceremony with which we commemorate the Sabbath’s departure on Saturday night. If you miss saying Havdalah on Saturday night you can say it up until sunset of Tuesday. That’s because Sunday, Monday and Tuesday day are considered in the “shadow” of the previous Shabbat. From Tuesday night and on we are in the space anticipating the upcoming Shabbat. I think that the lesson here is that the day of rest is not the “end” of the week, like reaching the finish line after a six days of work and then collapsing. Instead it is the centerpiece of every week, the pinnacle, the raison d’être. Perhaps the best symbol of this is the golden menorah in the Temple, with its primary central branch and the three on either side that angled towards it. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say during his very long Havdalah services that the Kiddush we make in this ceremony isn’t just to separate the sacred from the profane, it’s to inject the profane with the sacred. When Shabbat and a God-focused, holy life is the center of our week, we float on an exalted raft of blessing upon the raging river of life. We innately perceive that the energy of the previous Shabbat is only three days behind us and another life giving, faith-building day is imminent.
The prayers on Shabbat are longer and hopefully more musical than their weekday counterpart. Shabbat is the time when a mourner’s chiyuv (halachic priority) to lead the service is superseded by the importance of having a trained chazzan with natural musical leadership ability. The celebration starts with a final weekday Mincha (afternoon) service and segues into the special Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony to welcome the Sabbath bride. Then evening prayers are followed by a festive meal. On Saturday we have extra prayers in the Psukei D’zimra (Psalms of praise) and Shema section plus the inclusion of Mussaf to commemorate the additional sacrifice in biblical times. Add that to the full-length Torah readings and you have a nearly three-hour marathon that can exhaust even the most penitent. It doesn’t help that the halacha stipulates that one shouldn’t eat before services but must wait until hearing Kiddush. Therefore, I recommend to newcomers that they take their time nurturing this acquired taste. In other words, yes, optimally you should be in the synagogue for all the prayers, but no, you shouldn’t do so if it makes you want to tear your hair out. A good indication of your frustration level is if you start counting how many pages are left in the prayer book. If you come a bit later to services, then you can incorporate your public prayer daily requirement in measured doses.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when there was no Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. This beautiful series of Psalms and songs that ushers in our holy day was initiated in Tsfat only 600 years ago…that makes it a new service, compared the rest of our 2500-year-old siddur. I think those kabbalists chose a specific set of tehillim (Psalms) in order to fill us with a sense of wonder in terms of God’s power as revealed in nature. All of the passages vividly describe either lofty mountains, rushing rivers, heaving oceans or thunderous storms, hopefully allowing us to recall intense personal experiences of the Divine that we have had in beautiful natural surroundings. Just think of a time when you witnessed a spectacular waterfall, crashing waves or a perfectly silent, snowy scene. What typically happens in a nature moment is that your ever-present ego takes a short break and a palpable awareness of God’s presence fills the vacuum. In fact, Kabbalat Shabbat allows us to experience a degree of passion that is typically not a part of the Ma’ariv service. The spoken word is our basic mode of communication, the next level is song, and when you just can’t contain your joy another moment, spontaneous dance is the only appropriate outlet! When I’m leading a Sabbath program I try to get even the stodgiest congregation on their feet and dancing around the sanctuary.
Sometimes I wonder where I get the drive and discipline to be so machmir (strict) with my Sabbath and holiday observance. I certainly didn’t start out life this way, and taking on such a profound and seemingly inconvenient commitment might seem out of reach. Especially when even avoiding sugar for a day is impossible! Obviously I’m aided by having a great community that is dedicated to celebrating these holy days according to the letter of the law. It’s also helpful to have my family unified in sharing the adventure. But I think in my case, there might be something more operating here behind the scenes. I’d like to share a few stories that may indicate a celestial merit that has come down from my ancestors that is keeping our family on this path of righteousness.
The first story involves my great grandmotherLena Barenfeld, for whom my daughter Sarah Lena is named. My brother, Rabbi Yom Tov was waiting for his El Al flight to depart when an attendant came down the aisle looking for a Mr. Glaser. Yom Tov raised his hand and she told him that there was another seat for him closer to the front. A rabbi a few rows back said, “You’re Rabbi Glaser?” This leader in the Ponevezh Yeshiva had heard that there were some Ba’al Teshuva Glasers out there and he wanted to verify a certain yeshiva legend. He motioned for Yom Tov to join him in the seat next to him and told him this tale.
One auspicious evening in the late 40’s the Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi Kahaneman paid Lena and her husband Abraham a visit to raise funds for his new yeshiva. The rav was attempting to restore the grandeur of his formidable scholarly community that had been obliterated in the holocaust. This new beis midrash (house of study) would be built in Israel within the legendary ancient rabbinic stronghold of B’nei Brak. I imagine that my great grandpa Abe had his fill of such “shnorrers” and sent the rav away with a small donation. Before he left, my great grandma entered the room and cried, “My children have strayed so far from Torah and I am heartbroken. I don’t have even one member of my extended family Shomer Shabbas. If you can bless us that some of my progeny will become Shomer Shabbat, we will dedicate the cornerstone of the beis midrash.” The rav then gave her this blessing and the rest is history. This year I was honored to share this story and perform at the West Coast Ponevezh banquet and this yeshiva has now grown to become the leading Litvak institutiion in Israel to date.
The next story occurred shortly after I had starting keeping Shabbat in 1992. It’s a long tale but I have to spell out the details in order to elucidate it properly. My brother Yom Tov had just returned from his first year in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Our family was overjoyed to see how much he had grown spiritually and that just behind that scraggly beard was the charismatic Johnny that we adored. Yom Tov and I have always bonded over action sports. We’ve never been able to sit still and watch a ball game on TV; we much prefer to explore the backcountry on our mountain bikes or hit the surf. That first weekend he was back we made plans to join a group of old friends for a weekend of fun in our beloved Joshua Tree National Park. A mere two hours from our home lies this rock-ridden patch of desert that is nothing short of an alien moonscape, perfect for climbing, biking and camping.
We set off that Friday morning in my trusty Toyota Supra that was packed to the brim with camping gear and our two mountain bikes strapped to the rack. A half hour down the road my car started to overheat. It clearly was not up for the task of this arduous drive and thankfully it broke down near a friend’s home. We pulled into his driveway and earnestly begged to use his truck for the weekend. “Sure,” he said, “as soon as you unload the cord of firewood in the back.” We frantically stacked the prodigious pile of lumber against his garage, transferred our gear and set off in his rickety 4×4. Unfortunately, an hour down the road, while doing eighty in the fast lane we had an explosive tire blowout. Now we were stuck on the wrong side of the 10 Freeway and it took an eternity for a cop to show up and radio for a tow truck…hard to imagine how we ever survived without cell phones!
We waited for what felt like hours as the shop replaced the tire and charged $100 that I was not very excited to spend. At last we were on the road again and it soon dawned on us that it was increasingly unlikely that we were going to make it to Joshua Tree by sundown. Still, we pressed ahead, hoping for a miracle. Shortly before candle lighting we had a tense dialog regarding the state of affairs. I was still at a point in my observance where I could rationalize that we should finish the trip and we’d take on Shabbas as soon as we would arrive. That is not a liberty that I would take today. My brother, however, said no, we will not drive even a minute after Shabbas comes in, even if we have to spend the day on the side of the freeway.
I have to explain that at this time in history, there was almost no civilization between LA and Palm Springs. Just a few “one horse” towns with gas stations and fast food joints; certainly not the continuous metropolis that one finds today. We spotted a motel at the next exit and screeched off the interchange, only to find that it was out of business. I saw a look of panic in my brother’s eyes as he commandeered our friend’s pickup back onto the freeway in search of another option. With sundown looming, we pulled off at the next exit and parked in the first motel we saw. We immediately started throwing our property to the door of one of the units and I scampered to the front desk to check in. Just as the sun hit the horizon we had the last of our valuables inside and we high-fived each other, thrilled that we had a roof over our heads to celebrate this unusual Shabbat.
We prayed with a special intensity and enjoyed a delectable feast that my mother had lovingly prepared for our journey. We sang, danced and jumped on the beds until we realized that we were totally exhausted from the day’s exploits. Now we had another problem. The lights were on in the room and neither of us would turn them off. I checked the front desk and found that no one was there. I noticed a young black couple in the room next door. I gingerly knocked on the door and a clearly disconcerted, wide-eyed man peered out through the crack. I explained that we wanted to go to sleep but the light was on. You see, when asking a non-Jew to do an act forbidden to a Jew on Shabbat, you can’t mention the exact thing you want him to do. He has to intuit the requisite action and choose to do it on his own volition. Anyway, while this man looked at me with incredulity that I would make such a ridiculous statement, my brother stepped in and said, “you see, we are really tired and it would be great if it were dark enough to sleep.” With this, the man slammed the door shut, gathered his girlfriend and drove off into the night.
The next day we wandered the streets of this backwater town. It was called Banning and we joked as we passed the few stores that they were “banning liquor” and “banning police.” After walking off our bodacious lunch we returned to the room for a nap and then after darkness fell, promptly checked out and finished that last forty minutes of our drive up to Joshua Tree. We rejoiced around the campfire with our worried friends and toasted to our zany Shabbat experience. The next day we climbed the incredible boulders of this national park and enjoyed a memorable mountain bike ride down the sandy, cactus-lined trails.
Yes, the story has an epilogue: A few months later I attended a family holiday get together. I told my dear Uncle Charlie the saga of our amusing Shabbas debacle getting stuck in this hick town. When I finished the tale Charlie blanched and didn’t respond for a few moments. Then he said, “Sammy, are you telling me that you and your brother spent Shabbas in Banning?” “Yes, Uncle Charlie. What’s the big deal?” He replied, “Do you know anything about Banning?” “Yes,” I said with a grin, “they are banning police and liquor!” He looked at me sternly and said, “Sam, your grandfather, for whom you are named, founded the town of Banning. And at that time in his life, as his garment business grew, Shabbas had to take a back seat to overseeing the production in his new factory. Do you see that you and Johnny, his descendants have created a tikkun, a healing? You kept Shabbas in Banning! What do you think of that?
The fact is that most of us Jewish folks have great grandparents who were deeply connected to Shabbat and are pulling strings for us upstairs. Just imagine that since the time of Moses, the freight train of Jewish history has been thundering along the tracks, powered by the eternal connection with Mount Sinai. Tragically, in our days we see that many of the cars have derailed. You can be the one to help get the train back on track. There’s a supernatural reason that our souls feel good when we affiliate, when we do a mitzvah. Perhaps it’s assuaging our Jewish guilt or a subliminal attraction to members of the tribe. Or maybe it’s all those ancestors rallying for you behind the scenes shouting, “Go, go, go, go, go!”
I wish all my readers a Good Shabbas! Thank God it’s Friday! And if it’s not Shabbas today, just know that it’s coming soon.