Friday, May 14, 2021
Rest in the House of the Lord Learning to Observe the Sabbath with Psalm 92
I literally came out of a world in which the sabbath was properly observed. We really need to consider returning to that obvious standard.
My reason for saying this is that the only valid argument for not keeping the sabbath has been the false one of commercial expedincy.
The human being needs to physically keep the sabbath. It is typically too damaging otherwise. The fact is that we now ermploy people for a forty hour week because that actually turns out the best.
In the meantime we have created a 24/7 service industry world which could actually be abandoned. After all, there are no more real sales to go after in those off hours that are not readily done in the working time frame. Instead we have folks doubling up their work load subsidizing low wages by taking two jobs.
Rest in the House of the Lord
Learning to Observe the Sabbath with Psalm 92
MAY 10, 2021
Around the end of the last millennium, I got a job working for a small Yorkshire college that had started supervising degrees in Israel. I was hired as a Hebrew-speaking lecturer in creative writing who could train Israeli teachers in how to use creative-writing techniques in their classrooms. The job involved traveling to Israel with the other academics from the college, who were all English and, not surprisingly, Christian. As an Israeli who had arrived in England aged eight and attended Jewish secondary school, my grasp of Christian social nuances was sketchy, to say the least. At our hotel in Tel Aviv, I asked one of the more senior academics – a friendly, silver-haired, jolly man, and the mentor of one of the other lecturers – whether he was what they called a “fallen” Catholic. He replied, “The term is lapsed,” and walked out of the elevator.
I do not mean to suggest there were any religious tensions, merely that how observant anyone was became the flashpoint; while taking tours of Israel together on that first trip we came upon festivals and observances that had been on the wane in England for decades. At one point the English academics were all standing together reminiscing about what Sunday used to be in the north of England. “You couldn’t play football,” one of them said. “Oh no, you’d get a right telling off if they saw you doing that on a Sunday. Never mind not going to church. Kicking a football? You’d get your ear clipped.”
I had not expected it, but Sabbath observance became central to my experience on that trip to Israel. I hadn’t been there in a good ten years. I used to visit as a child, seeing my grandparents every summer for at least six weeks. I had a friend there who would play cowboys with plastic guns with me in my grandparents’ parking lot. Then I got older, and when I returned to visit him I found out he was in the army, and going to his unit after Sabbath with a real metal gun in a leather holster. This wasn’t even the regulation Uzi you’d see boys and girls lugging around on buses – it was a sidearm he was issued, and he didn’t go anywhere in uniform without it. We weren’t playing cowboys any more. I didn’t go back after I was eighteen; I no longer belonged.
Flash forward to my early thirties and another change had come along. I met a girl and was going to get married. But she was religious and I was not. For her, I began to reconsider my relationship to faith.
It was in the transition from blithely ignoring the Jewish sabbath that starts on a Friday night and lasts until stars are out on Saturday night, to observing it in the Orthodox fashion – no switching on lights, no cooking, no traveling anywhere that you can’t walk – that this first trip with my new academic colleagues came up. I actually hadn’t expected it to be a problem until they all wanted to go out on Friday night. I hadn’t even thought it would be a problem until we were sitting in the (non-kosher) Chinese restaurant and they ordered and I ordered and when the food arrived there was a huge, red-glazed pig on a silver tray, with an orange in its mouth.
I do not mean to suggest that I was a great observant Jew who had been led astray. I had been raised secular and was in transition, as they say. Still, if you find yourself on a Friday night going out with Christian colleagues, sitting in a non-kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv, not a stone’s throw from the beach, and the sun starts to set and you really don’t feel at ease, then the food arrives and it’s a giant red pig, you will forgive me for thinking that somebody’s trying to tell you that you really ought not to be sitting here.
A song sung on Sabbath day (my translation):
It’s good to thank the Lord and sing to you, one above
To recite in the morning your favors and at night your loyalty.
Upon a lute or on a mandolin with the humming of a harp.
Because you pleased me Lord by your actions I rejoice in your handicraft.
This Psalm is recited in the Ashkenazi service welcoming the Sabbath. It is the demarcation line; once the woman of the house has lit the candles she is forbidden from doing any work, but if you are a man you can still go and switch something off, take something off the cooker, whatever it might be, until you get to end of the prayers and this Psalm is said. It announces that the Sabbath has arrived. It’s the end of the transition between secular and sacred space and time.
Yoram Raanan, Shabbat Candle Lighting Window © Yoram Raanan, used by permission from the artist
Iwent back to the hotel. I just got up and told my colleagues I couldn’t be there. I called my wife and told her I was in the hotel for Sabbath. (Israel is two hours ahead of England so Sabbath wasn’t in yet for her as it was for me. I prayed after I called.) The next day my Sabbath observance extended to not joining my colleagues for a day of course planning. I was resting. Perhaps they took it in their stride. Nobody ever said anything to me about it. They were probably puzzled, however, by my uncle and his family coming to the hotel to take me out for a drive to the Golan Heights.
Like I said, I was in transition. I knew that eating huge red pigs was not right, but had not quite reached the point of telling my secular relatives that I could not go out with them on the Sabbath. So they drove me to the north of Israel and the beautiful Golan which is not unlike the transition from driving in England to driving in Scotland – the pace of life slows down, there is a sense of peace. I presume it’s not the peace of the Sabbath, because that peace only prevailed once we got the up to the Golan.
How great are your creations Lord so deep your thoughts
A witless man will not know this and a fool won’t understand
When the wicked spring up like grass and all who work iniquity break bud
It will be their destruction for all time But you Lord are forever on high
For here are your enemies Lord for here are your enemies perished,
All who work iniquity will be torn limb from limb but you will raise my horn like a bull’s.
This Psalm discusses the problem of evil and why the Lord tolerates it. This is a question to which you may not have time to give due consideration in the course of the busy week. But if you stop for a whole day to reflect, you may consider this question. Perhaps that is why the rabbis chose to insert this Psalm into the liturgy, and why the Temple service opted to incorporate it on the Sabbath long before the rabbis, because that is when you might have the time to question the Almighty – time to worship properly, but also to question.
Just as the sun was starting to tip on Sabbath afternoon we ran out of gas somewhere on Golan Heights, just outside a religious community. The question arose what to do. There’s no reason for my uncle and aunt to have different attitudes to religious Jews; they went to the same high school, started dating there, and married before he joined the navy. But she was willing to go into the religious community gate and ask for help, while he wanted nothing to do with them and stayed in the car. I accompanied her.
We went up to a house and knocked, explained we were out of gas. The lady let us in, and said her husband and son would be back from the synagogue soon, would we like something to eat? I sat down and accepted a bite. My aunt was not so comfortable, but she sat down. I looked at the books on the wall. They were religious books, like I’d seen in the homes of people I’d visited on Sabbath in London in the observant community; I felt right at home.
Then the men came back from the synagogue; I remember them coming in out of the fading light. I don’t suggest they were angels, but if someone was making a biopic of my great religious awakening in Israel it would feature that pig in the restaurant and the religious guys coming back from synagogue in the same light, what cinematographers call the golden hour, when every shot you take is dynamite.
They gave us gas and we drove off. My aunt remarked to my uncle how nice they were, but he didn’t say much. Israel is a deeply divided society, even within families. My uncle never had a bar mitzvah, never had a ceremony by which you “redeem” your first son from the priest in the synagogue. He never went to synagogue, was uncomfortable with the whole business. When an employee of his turned religious he took a dim view of the creeping incursion of orthodoxy into his married life. When my uncle’s daughter sent her own daughter to a religious kindergarten because it was right on her street, more convenient than the secular kindergarten around the corner, open longer hours and less expensive, he asked her, “What are you going to do when she comes home and asks you why you don’t light candles on Friday night?”
I’ve rubbed myself down with refreshing oil and my eye has looked down on my enemies
Of those wicked who rose up against me my ears did hear.
A righteous man will flourish like a palm and like a cedar in the Lebanon spread out
Planted in the house of the Lord in the court of our God they will bud.
Still bearing fruit in old age succulent and supple they’ll last
To declare that the Lord is straight up my fortress and no falsehood in Him to be found .
When we got back to Tel Aviv I joined my colleagues in another day of planning, and then we went to Safed. We were shown around the tiny town that had been occupied by Jewish mystics for centuries, long before mass immigration to Palestine from Europe began in the late nineteenth century. We peered into a tiny synagogue, and I found myself standing between my colleagues and the inner room, unwilling to aid them in interrupting the prayer service. They felt they were tourists, but I felt we were intruders. The tour guide, a secular Israeli academic with short blue spiky hair, remarked in passing that Safed had a particular mystical vibration. “The only other place I’ve felt anything like it,” she said, “was in England. Canterbury. In the cathedral you can definitely feel something. It must be the ley lines. Magnetic resonance. Something.”
When I got back from Israel, something had shifted. I won’t pretend my Sabbath observance suddenly became meticulous. I may still have not gone to synagogue, in fact I know I didn’t because my wife and I weren’t living that close to one, and when we did go people were so friendly I feared they might want me to go every day! But I was meticulous at least inside my home. I was in transition but nearer to arrival. And it began with that pig near the beach in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, in the company of my colleague who was not fallen but merely lapsed. The colleague who remembered keeping Sabbath only way back in the north of England, where you would be chided if you kicked a ball and didn’t pray on the Sabbath day.