St. Paul, Minnesota, 1949
(What we Catholics need are some hats like those!)
Ladies and gentlemen, live from Jerusalem, it's Friday night! That means that over in the U.S., you're chanting "T.G.I.F.!" and making weekend plans while the last of the work day or school day ticks away. Maybe your family is texting prospective movie times back and forth. Maybe your friends are calling you with transportation details for the party tonight. Maybe you're planning your party outfit in your head. You can almost taste that happy hour mojito! You can even almost hear the thump-thump-thump of the club music. This weekend is going to rock!
Meanwhile, over here in Jerusalem, our weekend has just begun, and it's definitely not rocking. Our whole city has ground to a halt. The streets are deserted of cars. The lights that are off will not be turned on again for 24 hours. And instead of the thump-thump-thump of party music, a silence. A stillness. The kind of quiet you can only get when pretty much every machine in the city is turned off.
And yet, I think our town has the right idea.
You may remember last Sunday's First Reading, from the Old Testament: The Ten Commandments, as told to Moses by God himself in Exodus 20. Remember that third part, tucked in between not taking the Lord's name in vain and honoring your father and mother?
"Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
Jewish tradition takes this commandment to what we Christians might perceive at first glance to be a bit extreme. But is it?
The Jewish sabbath, "Shabbat" in Hebrew, or "Shabbos" in Yiddish, begins at sundown on Friday night and ends when you can see three stars in the sky on Saturday night. And during that time, Jews are absolutely forbidden from creating anything new.
That doesn't sound so hard, you might say. But think of the sparks that make your car run. Think of the marks left behind by a writing pencil that weren't there before you wrote the note. Think of Friday night's dinner! All of these acts of creation are forbidden to a "shomer Shabbat," or Shabbat-observant Jew.
From sundown on Friday to after sundown on Saturday, Jews will not work, spend money, cook, write, operate any kind of machine, or do anything else that creates something new or asserts control over their environment. That means no laptops. No TV. No cell phones! No light switches!
It also means that all businesses in town are closed. There is literally nothing to do for over 24 hours except spend time with family and good friends, make conversation, take a walk, have a nap… and go to the synagogue.
As a result, Fridays before the start of Shabbat are a wild rush of preparations. Friday mornings are a madhouse at the Shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem's open-air market. The prohibition on cooking means that most Jewish families will create some sort of slow-cooker meal or hearty stew on Friday afternoon that can be left on the stove, in a crockpot or on a hot plate for an entire day and eaten at mealtimes. (This is, presumably, where the stereotype of brisket-loving Jews comes from. You can cook a brisket for hours and it still tastes great!)
For observant Jews, the entire weekend revolves around going to the synagogue or the Western Wall on Friday night. Whole extended families walk along the now-deserted light rail tracks, pushing babies in strollers. And they're all dressed to the nines. Orthodox Haredi Jews, who dress in black-and-white business-attire-type clothing and distinctive matching hats every day of the week, really pull out all the stops for Shabbat. The men, depending on their sect, wear golden silk robes, huge cylindrical fur hats, or just their very best Sabbath suit. The women are wearing short, smart heels, freshly pressed blouses, pearls. They look like a million bucks.
Meanwhile, over in the U.S., some of us wear jeans with holes to church. That is, if we make it to church at all after a late night on Saturday. Our weekends revolve around partying or activities. When we spend time with family, the TV is almost always on. And Heaven forbid if we have to turn off our cell phones for one entire dinner conversation (or even one Mass!), or give up our cars for one day.
Perhaps our generation is too young to remember a simpler time, the so-called "Good Old Days." My relatives from the Deep South have mentioned a time when the single objective of a Sunday was putting on your Sunday Best and going to church. The rest of the day was spent with family, with friends, maybe sitting on the porch drinking iced tea. No work or chores were done on this day of rest.
And whatever happened to that "Sunday Best?" While endangered, you may still see it in some places. Sunday mornings in East Austin or Harlem, or some other area with a Gospel church or a large African-American population, will bring together families of grannies and mamas in heels and gravity-defying hats, sharp-dressed grandpas and daddies in suits, little girls in lace gloves and little boys in clip-on ties. Meanwhile, some Catholic women who wear mantilla veils during Mass do so simply because the act of wearing something special separates the Mass from everyday life.
The prohibition against performing creative acts or acts of work on the sabbath was lifted for us Christians by our savior, Jesus Christ, who proclaimed Himself "Lord of the Sabbath." (See Matthew 12.) But there are still a few things we could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters and their own particular brand of celebrating the Lord's day.
This Lent, why not try bringing a little bit of our Lord's earthly heritage into your own life? To be a better Catholic, act a little Jewish, at least when it comes to the Sabbath. Here are five ideas to bring back our Sunday Best, courtesy of the folks who do it on Friday nights.
- Put some thought into Sunday before it starts. Set out your clothes on Saturday night. Read the readings ahead of time. Plan a special meal. (If you really want to go all-out Shabbat-style, try a slow-cooker recipe – but not the pulled pork, because that's not kosher!) This weekend, don't let church be an afterthought. Let it be the cornerstone of your Sunday.
- Dress up for Mass. When you lay out your clothes, pick something nice. Something really special. Some nice heels, a pretty skirt, some new earrings. Maybe you don't have a gravity-defying hat or a silk robe, but find your own version of Sunday Best and wear it proudly. Easter is one day that nearly all Christians dress nicely for Church. (Remember Easter dresses and Easter bonnets?) In the Catholic Church, we believe that every Sunday is the "Lord's Day," a celebration of the Resurrection, a weekly Easter. So why not dress like it?
- Walk to church. My husband and I currently do this out of necessity, because public transportation also stops running on Shabbat. The Israeli work week begins on Sunday, so we go to Saturday evening Mass near the Old City (at the only Catholic Church with Mass in English). And we walk five kilometers (over three miles) to get there. But on the way, we talk, we re-center ourselves as a family, we become reconnected to the city around us in ways you never could by driving or taking the train. Perhaps try praying as you walk – bring a rosary or just thank God for the beautiful things you see along the way. On a purely practical note, if you're worried about walking in heels, wear sneakers and bring a large purse with a change of shoes. That's not what Jewish women do, but it's what I do! If your current living situation (stuck in suburban sprawl, no safe path to walk to church) makes this impossible, instead try arriving to church early. Maybe visit the Blessed Sacrament. Take some time to pray and re-center yourself.
- Turn off the machines and let work wait until Monday. Avoid all recreational machine use. If your job or classes allow it, leave the computer and the cell phone completely off all Sunday. Leave off the TV and go outside. Enjoy the spring weather. Enjoy your family and friends. Spend some time praying or reading your Bible or another good book. Maybe even take a short nap! Do you really need to check Facebook for the 10,000th time on the Lord's Day?
- Spend some (quality!) time with friends and family. That means no TV or movies. Don't go out to an establishment. Maybe invite some friends or family over for a special shared meal, or to play games, or just to talk. Bring back the dying art of conversation. Get on the floor and play with the little kids. Go outside and enjoy the Lord's creation. Have a picnic!
The irony is that, in prohibiting creative acts and not allowing the usual diversions, it turns out that getting through the Jewish Shabbat can be the most creative act of all. So get creative with the way you personally remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Who knows? You might even get a little bit of that Sunday Best back.