Creating your own Shabbat

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin

While I was still a student, I entered into an e-mail-based discussion with other rabbis on the concept of the rabbinic day off, meaning whether or not we should have one. The discussion was more evenly split than you thought. The senior rabbi of a prominent East Coast congregation weighed in on the discussion saying that he serves all sorts of doctors, attorneys and business people who never take a day off. He said that his members don’t take a day off, so to best serve them, neither should he.

The discussion occurred during this time of the year when we look at the portion Vaykahel, (this year combined with Pekudei, concluding the book of Exodus). While the portion mostly speaks of the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) it begins by reminding the Israelites that they are to work for six days but rest on the seventh day. The rabbis then expanded on this to suggest that, not only one’s profession, but all of the activities involved with building the Mishkan are to be prohibited on Shabbat.

It was with this portion in mind that I replied to my much more senior colleague on e-mail, saying that we, as rabbis, should be setting the example of resting on one day a week, and hopefully the overworked doctors, attorneys and business people will learn the great benefit that comes with observing Shabbat in some form or another.

Shabbat was chosen as the one day each week that the community would take off, as a day holy to God, on which we would increase our worship, increase our leisure, and become spiritually rested from the week that was and spiritually ready for the week to come. Of course, as a rabbi, I don’t take Shabbat off from my profession, and I respect that there are others for a variety of reasons that cannot. While Shabbat, as Friday night to Saturday, is important as a day of gathering for the Jewish people, there is a greater and more important lesson in the concept of Shabbat.

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The purpose of Shabbat for the individual is more than prayer and community (although I do not discount those aspects), but additionally it is about reclaiming our individual identity and strengthening relationships with ourselves, our family and God. When we take one day out of seven away from our professions, away from anything we consider work, we declare ourselves to be more than workers; we have a day to be our best selves. This does not have to be Saturday. It can be Sunday, or even Tuesday if that is the day which our personal situation allows us to have for ourselves.

When we take time away from our pursuits of the everyday, we can look into ourselves. We learn what is most important to ourselves and how we can refresh ourselves in a way that makes our days of work even more productive. It also gives us time to renew our relationships with those who are most important to us: our family, our friends, and, hopefully, our God.

Of course, as occurs in most conversations among rabbis, our e-mail discussion of a day off never came to a definitive conclusion. But it did strengthen in me my desire to observe Shabbat, even when the demands of the congregation force me to postpone my own personal Shabbat until Monday.

As we read this portion on Shabbat, may we all take time to consider the importance of Shabbat and the great benefits: spiritual, emotional and physical, of taking regular time away from the daily grind.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of B’nai El Congregation prepared this week’s Torah portion.