Jewish learning Reintroducing Shabbos
Jack Riemer, The Jerusalem Post Book Review, June 25, 2022
“We have not had a book like this since Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote his book on the Sabbath many years ago. We have lots of books that tell us about the laws and customs of the Sabbath, but I can’t think of another book written in our time that expresses the spirit of the Sabbath as well as this one does. [Hebrew College Rabbi] Nehemia Polen has written nothing less than a love song to the Sabbath, but with twists.”
Hebrew College Professor of Jewish Thought Rabbi Nehemia Polen shares the preface to his new book below.
This work reintroduces Shabbos to those who have grown up with the holy seventh day, as well as to newcomers who wish to gain access to the power of this most venerable of Judaism’s traditions. It provides fresh, innovative readings of core biblical and talmudic passages, as well as guidance for expressions such as blessing, melody, storytelling, prayer, listening, and silence. What is the core of Shabbos experience? How can we immerse ourselves in the sublime delight that this day offers in a way that totally surpasses the immediacy of flickering screens? These are some of the questions that this book seeks to explore.
Shabbos beckons us to sacred space as well as sacred time, in three stages: Stop, Look, Listen. First, Stop: on Friday afternoon we call a halt to business as usual and arrive at a destination, mindfully inhabiting a specific locale, creating an embodied community of trust and intimacy. We establish an expansive domain of hospitality and openheartedness. Of particular importance for our society, Shabbos’s Stop proclaims a technology interregnum, a declaration of freedom from communication devices that promise convenience and connection but often deliver entrapment and estrangement. Instead of the slogan ‘move fast and break things,’ Shabbos invites us to move slowly and savor things.
Dawn’s first light brings the opportunity to Look at the world with ennobled vision, eyes bathed in grace, gazing with benevolence, practicing the virtue of appreciation without grasping. Then, late Shabbos afternoon, as the natural light of the sun slowly fades, there is the opportunity to Listen with greater presence and acuity–to the voices of loved ones and wisdom teachers, to the whispers of one’s own heart, to the awesome silence of the Infinite. The three stages are cumulative, an unbroken sequence growing in amplitude and richness. Shabbos is not a period of deprivation and denial, but a precious sacred gift, an opportunity for immersion in holiness and blessing, for joining in zemiros and niggunim (sacred melodies), for practicing dispositions of joy, generosity, equanimity, respect, and non-judgmentalism—the loving embrace of all God’s creations. Rather than sedentary relaxation, Shabbos calls for maximum alertness and focused awareness. This is the time to ponder what really matters in one’s life and how to elevate the scope of one’s aspirations.
Preface to Stop. Look. Listen. Celebrating Shabbos Through a Spiritual Lens
My father was a heavy smoker. If my childhood memories are accurate, his habit exceeded a pack a day. He was not proud of this fact, but there was, so he said, nothing he could do about it. He had started in his teens, during a period when, as he recalled, smoking not only had positive social cachet but the endorsement of many medical professionals. Advertisements featuring physicians would tout smoking as a healthy practice: ‘Reach for a Lucky Strike instead of a sweet.’
On Shabbos my father didn’t smoke. This was not surprising, since our family was shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant), as we called it. What was remarkable, however, was the fact that my father did not feel the urge to smoke on Shabbos. With the welcoming of Shabbos came a release from the incessant desire to light up another cigarette. Shabbos freed my father from enslavement to tobacco. I recall him once expressing dread of the moment when, just after Havdalah (the liturgy of bringing Shabbos to a close on Saturday evening after nightfall) the ache for nicotine would reappear. What was it about our family’s Shabbos observance that supplanted, if only for a day, his intense physiological need and psychological dependency?
It is the experience of Shabbos in my childhood home that motivates me, in part, to write this book.
There are many books that present Shabbos as an opportunity for celebration, for sanctifying time, for deepening family ties, and of course for rest and relaxation, a necessary respite from the weekly grind. Each of these perspectives captures an aspect of the day’s significance. Together they highlight beneficial outcomes of Shabbos observance, but they do not reach the core of Shabbos—Shabbos’s sheer palpability, heft and presence, felt so strongly and so tangibly that addictions are pushed aside, making room for air in body, love in heart, grace in spirit, light in soul. To be touched by Shabbos’s richly vibrant and animate personality is to be transformed, liberated. How does this come about? ….
Rabbi Nehemia Polen is Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. He received his talmudic education at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, earned a degree in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, and wrote his doctoral dissertation at Boston University under the direction of Elie Wiesel. Dr. Polen is the author of, among other works, The Holy Fire, a pioneering study of the Holocaust-era writings of Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapiro of Piaseczna, and The Rebbe’s Daughter, introducing the writings of Malka Shapiro and revealing the major leadership role of women in hasidic dynasties, which won a National Jewish Book Award. Listen to him discuss this book on Hebrew College’s Speaking Torah Podcast episode “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Translator.”
Polen has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and the Silver Fellowship at Harvard University. A noted authority on Hasidism, he also teaches and publishes on Tanakh and early Rabbinic literature and lectures widely on the theory and practice of hasidic niggun.