How Will We Recognize Shabbat?

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Gabriel Greenberg

Like many around the world, the longer-term effects of staying at home are mounting in our home. As has been noted in various newspaper articles and depicted in memes swirling around social media, one common phenomenon has been people losing track of time, specifically, forgetting when they are in a given week. Whereas our normal schedules have different routines on different days, during the lockdown period each day looks highly similar to both the one before and the one after it. With the adults working from home, the kids doing schoolwork on every available surface, and without the option of going to shul or friends’ homes, weekends and weekdays resemble each other as never before.

This unchanging, monotonous experience of the days takes an emotional toll: sometimes felt as boredom, while at other times as anxiety. The narrator in Nicole Krauss’s novel, Great House, speaks to a similar feeling of tedium: “There’s a pressure mounting in my chest. I can’t pass over it.… We move through the day like two hands of a clock: sometimes we overlap for a moment, then come apart again, carrying on alone. Every day exactly the same: the tea, the burnt toast, the crumbs, the silence. You in your chair, I in mine.”[1]

There is obviously nothing particularly Jewish about this experience, though I believe that our tradition offers unique tools with which to think about and respond to this reality. Sefirat ha-Omer is one example: the process of literally counting each day during the Omer period, which helps to demarcate one day from the next, and to force us to verbally remind ourselves of our movement through the Jewish calendar year.

The Jewish ritual which is most central to our current moment, though, is the weekly observance of Shabbat. Shomer-Shabbat individuals already understand the ways in which one’s entire week becomes oriented towards Shabbat, and how one is always aware of how many days remain before it begins. This is both descriptively true, and, as Ramban notes, a prescriptive fulfillment of the commandment of זכור – “to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8 and Ramban ad loc.). Hence, even the ways in which we refer to days in the Jewish calendar (Yom Rishon, Yom Sheni), serve to keep us focused on and connected to where we stand in relation to the upcoming Shabbat.

Our relationship to the Jewish calendar generally, and Shabbat specifically, would seem to suffice for traditionally observant Jews to be fairly well inoculated against forgetting the day in a given week.

Hazal, however, imagined a scenario where such would not be the case. Shabbat 69b describes a state of affairs wherein an observant Jew does in fact forget where they are in relation to Shabbat. Such a person, while “wandering on a journey or in the desert”, realizes that they are unsure what day of the week it is: “they do not know when Shabbat occurs.” The gemara here acknowledges that life’s vicissitudes can be such as to completely knock one out of synch with the calendar week. That, in certain circumstances, even Shomer-Shabbat individuals may lose track of where – really, when – they are. Obviously, the parallel to our situation is inexact, but there is a resonance that may help us reflect more deeply on our current moment. Indeed, this sugya offers further relevance, which emerges through a brief synopsis of the relevant discussion.

The sugya opens with an argument between Rav Huna and Hiyya bar Rav; the former being of the opinion that, on the day the traveler realizes that they do not know what day of the week it is, they begin a count of six days, following which they establish the seventh as Shabbat. The latter is of the opinion that, as soon one realizes they are out of touch with the week, they treat that very day as Shabbat. The gemara establishes the Halakha in accordance with Rav Huna.

Subsequently, Rava suggests that on every day of the week, the individual should do the absolute minimum needed to survive. Were one to do extraneous work, one may end up violating the actual day of Shabbat, despite it being considered an ersatz weekday. After a back and forth, the gemara concludes that this is the case on each day of the week, including the day that has been established as the person’s Shabbat: one must perform the minimum amount of work and melachah, lest that day be de jure Shabbat, if not the de facto one.

At this point, however, the gemara encounters a fundamental problem: if the person does not know conclusively that this day is really Shabbat, and there is no experiential difference in how the day is treated – i.e. they are doing the same amount of work every day to meet their physical needs – then in what meaningful way can this day be understood as “Shabbat”? As it puts the question, “And that day, how is it recognized?” To which the gemara responds, “through Kiddush and Havdalah.”

What does this answer mean? I believe it is ambivalent. It may be a positive, affirming response, that yes – our tradition offers ways to distinguish Shabbat in a special way, even during an interval where every day is mostly the same. Alternatively, the answer may be more pessimistic: namely, an acceptance of the dour reality that there may be exceptional periods of life where Shabbat is not deeply or meaningfully distinct from the days around it. And in such times, the only difference will be the ritual acts by which we welcome and say goodbye to Shabbat; we cannot hope to fully restore to Shabbat the requisite kavod (honor) and oneg (joy) it deserves. Rashi, in his comments (s.v. “be-kidushah”), seems to favor this latter position, while going further still. He notes that the recitation of Kiddush and Havdalah must be understood as a “simple remembrance” – as opposed to an actual fulfilment of the Biblical commandments. The purpose of doing so is “in order to establish the category of a day which is separate from the other days – lest [the concept of] Shabbat be forgotten.” For Rashi , then, the answer of “Kiddush and Havdalah” is a purely symbolic one; in this case, there can be no actual recognition of Shabbat.

This latter reading, along with Rashi’s gloss, is profound in its recognition of the foundational shifts that exceptional circumstances may entail. Again, the parallel is not an exact one. However, for us living through the pandemic, there is a striking recognition in the phrase, “how will [Shabbat] be recognized”? Tosafot (s.v. “oseh”) tease this out further with a thought experiment: If all the Halacha were to allow this person to do was to meet their basic needs, then when would they work towards resolving their predicament? Rather, Tosafot argue, it must be that on the days established as de facto weekdays, they may additionally travel and trek as much as they possibly can in order to return to civilization. Consequently, Shabbat would be a substantively different day due to its lack of travel. Given this distinction between the days, why does the gemara ask how Shabbat would be distinguishable? According to Tosafot, it is because “simply sitting and not going anywhere does not constitute a sufficient recognition of Shabbat.” Hence the gemara’s conclusion that only Kiddush and Havdalah will serve to differentiate between the other days – as there is nothing else which one can meaningfully do so in such a situation.[2]

It is this insight which rings painfully true in the coronavirus era. When going to shul is not an option, and having meals with friends, family, or community is off the table, then Shabbat begins to look and feel like every other day of the week; or as Tosafot put it, this “does not constitute a sufficient recognition of Shabbat.” Not to the extent that we might literally forget which day is Shabbat, but on an experiential level, the flavor of Shabbat is less distinctive without so many of its usual rituals and routines.[3]

The ambivalence of the gemara’s resolution, therefore, emerges as even more deeply true and sustaining in our time: “Kiddush and Havdalah.” Without the social framework to which we are accustomed, it is our tradition’s commanded rituals which will guide us, anchoring us back to our calendar and reminding us of our more typical flow of life. Through them we will recognize both Shabbat and the weekdays in their proper places, allowing us to have a semblance of normalcy and stability as we continue to navigate through these troubling times. Additionally, we may strive to add new changes to our Shabbat schedules in order to realize a more robust sense of its holiness and difference: setting aside time for new learning or reading, going for (appropriately socially-distancing) walks, more time singing, etc. At the same time, we acknowledge that there is something irretrievably lost when the purview of our Shabbat and weekday activities is so severely limited. However long this phase may last, we shall diligently fulfill the dual mitzvot of Zakhor (remember) and Shamor (observe), while simultaneously enduring the diminished senses of oneg and kavod that the Coronavirus lockdown brings with it.

[1] Nicole Krauss, Great House: A Novel (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 195.

[2] This insight of Tosafot – which is also adopted by Ramban and other rishonim – is compounded further in their second answer. They note, in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, the possibility that even on Shabbat itself one would be allowed to travel as much as necessary to return to civilization. If such were the case, then Kiddush and Havdalah would be the sole distinction between days.

[3] In using the term “flavor”, I am consciously invoking the gemara Shabbat 119a, תבלין אחד יש לנו ושבת שמו .

Gabe Greenberg is the Senior Jewish Educator and director of the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel. Previously, he served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans, LA.