The Sabbath as a Journey through the Worlds (Jill Hammer)
Each week, on Shabbat, I journey through my senses: the smell of the match as I light the candles, the blue-purple color of the evening sky as I sing the seven psalms welcoming Shabbat, the feel of cold water on my hands as I ritually wash before the Friday night meal, the taste of the Shabbat wine, the sound of birds as I walk to synagogue in the morning holding the embroidered bag with my tallit (four-cornered prayer shawl). For me, Shabbat is a day of rest and of religious obligation, and it is also a shamanic journey, a cleansing descent into the depths of the spirit, ending with return to sacred work in the world.
The journey of Shabbat is about rest. According to the Torah, Shabbat honors the seventh day of creation, when God rested, and also commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (Genesis 2:1-4, Exodus 20:8-11, Deut. 5:12-15). Shabbat is a day of rest, a celebration of the freedom to cease our labors. In traditional Jewish practice, all work ceases on Shabbat, particularly work that creates (such as spinning, planting, writing, or building) or destroys (such as lighting fires, tearing objects, or harvesting plants; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 73a). It is a kind of suspension of the wheel of life, holding forces of creation and destruction still so that we can contemplate them. Shabbat is a day for prayer and for public reading of sacred texts, for eating fine meals among family and friends, for walking from place to place, even for taking a long afternoon nap. Shabbat is a moment to be part of the earth, rather than shaping creation to the human will.
The journey of Shabbat is also about encountering the faces of God, particularly the Shekhinah: the feminine presence of God dwelling in all things. Shabbat has had a long-time association with the Divine feminine. The word Shabbat originally comes from the Babylonian sabbatu, a monthly festival that, as numerous writers have noted, was associated with female divinities and may once have marked the menstrual cycle of a goddess. Jewish mystics believed that the Sabbath was a time when the male and female aspects of God came together in union. To this day, many Jews welcome the Sabbath queen or bride, a manifestation of the Shekhinah, by turning to the door of the synagogue on Friday night to bow to Her as She enters. There is a mystical Jewish tradition that couples who make love on Friday night are enacting the union of the Shekhinah and the Holy One, just as in the upper world the Shekhinah and the Holy One join to make new souls. I also like to think of the Shabbat as the union of Binah, the heavenly mother-womb of creation, with Shekhinah or Malkhut, the earthly mother who is the substance of creation. Shabbat is a time for joinings of all kinds.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches the kabbalistic principle that we encounter multiple faces of God throughout the Sabbath. On Friday night, we encounter the beauty, wisdom, and gentleness of the Shekhinah, the bride and queen, and the prayers are peaceful and soothing. On Saturday morning, when the Torah is read, we encounter the Ein Sof, the infinite and unknowable aspect of the Divine, and the songs we sing are stately and joyful. On Shabbat afternoon, the liturgical music shifts to a mood of longing, and we encounter the face of the Divine known as Tiferet or Ze段r Anpin, God the impatient male lover, the leaping deer, who longs for intimacy with us. At Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat, we experience the sweetness and sadness of returning to the week of work, and the Shekhinah returns to accompany us on our journey. It is said that we receive an extra soul at the beginning of Shabbat that departs from us on Saturday night at the moment of havdalah.
My own travel through the Sabbath begins with the lighting of Sabbath candles. I cover my eyes and recite the blessings, then uncover my eyes to reveal the twin lights in front of me. Each week they seem to teach a different duality: action and reflection, life and death, the heavens and the earth, the male and the female, the animate and the inanimate, the upper mother and the lower mother. This is the beginning of an elemental journey that will take me from fire through air, water, and earth. Fire is a symbol of the spirit, and after lighting the candles, I try to guide my spirit into a peaceful place. The food has all been prepared, the guests, if there are guests, are already invited, and the lights are dimmed容ven if I am in a hurry, my spirit calms within me.
My next step in the journey is prayer. If I go to synagogue, I let the songs and chants fills me, and I meditate on the power of voice, language, music. Sometimes I dance in circles with the rest of the congregation while the Sabbath bride is entering由abbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say that dancing with others is like connecting heaven and earth. Sometimes I stand in the back of the synagogue and dance almost imperceptibly, by myself. The synagogue is my journey through air: the mind, the rhythm, the breath. The psalms, Talmudic prayers, and medieval poetry that make up the Shabbat service help me think about my week: what I did that was valuable, what I did that I wish I had not done. I commit myself to change, but let myself enjoy the joyful prayers and be, just as if I were in the garden at the beginning of time. I try to visualize the Shekhinah entering葉he pearls on her gown, or her rags; the whiteness, or blackness, of her skin. The image is always different, yet always both comforting and challenging.
Shabbat dinner begins with kiddush, the blessing of the wine that sanctifies the Sabbath day. I hold the goblet of wine and imagine that it is the womb of the universe, the place of eternal creation. I recite over it the biblical verses that tell the story of the making of the world. Then all who are sharing the meal go to wash their hands, an act of ritual purification before the blessing over bread. For me, this is the stage of water熔f flowing together in fellowship, of lifting up our hearts as holy. I remember that God is called makor mayim chayim葉he source of living waters, the one who flows through all things. Washing is a way for me to feel as if my Shabbat table is a temple, because the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem washed before serving God. It is also a way for me to feel connected to the flow of life.
Then the challah, the special braided bread that honors Shabbat, receives a sblessing. This bread was once called perchisbrod, and some say its braided dough honored the braided hair of a Teutonic goddess of birth and death, Perchta. I imagine that it honors the Shekhinah, keeper of life and death, and also the earth which gives us grain. We sprinkle the challah with salt before we eat it as a sign that it is holy, just as the holy sacrifices in the Temple were sprinkled with salt. The challah is the sign of the cycle of life葉he harvested grain we need to keep ourselves alive. The bread of the Sabbath meal reminds me that I eat through the sacrifice of other life, and reminds me of my responsibility to make my life worthwhile. According to the teachings of Isaac Luria, when we eat consciously, we release the holy divine sparks within the food, within the physical substance of being, and allow them to fly upward.
The Shabbat conversation is warm and usually turns to spiritual matters at least once during the evening. Eventually, we fade into drowsiness, recite the blessing of gratitude over our meal (if we remember), and sleep, for once, without alarm clocks.
In the morning, I walk down a street lined with birds and go off to synagogue again. I go to hear the morning prayers over awakening, light and darkness, love, freedom, and the deeds of my ancestors. I also go to hear the reading of the Torah葉he weekly portion of the first five books of the Bible. I spend the morning grappling with texts, deciding what I love about that day痴 sacred story and what makes me feel disturbed and angry. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds is a good example葉he birth canal image of the passage through the sea is moving, but the drowning Egyptians leave me feeling troubled. This is the time of the Ain Sof, the infinite God who cannot be pinned down to one form, one text, one ethic, one answer to any question. Shabbat morning is the morning of the trickster God, the God who wrestles, who wants to startle me out of my complacency and make me look at the world with fresh eyes.
Shabbat afternoon, for me, is usually a time for a quiet lunch, a walk in nature, a good book, an intimate conversation, a creative ritual, or a nap. Shabbat afternoon is the time of the longing God, the God who wants to connect, walk with me, bring me flowers and show me stars. It is a time both of deep rest and of melancholy, when I remember my as-yet-unfufilled desires.
Traditionally, Shabbat ends with havdalah, the ceremony of separation between the Sabbath and the six days of the week. This ceremony too brings together fire, air, water, and earth. The ritual objects used at havdalah are the braided havdalah candle (fire), sweet-smelling spices (earth and air), and a cup of wine (water). Legend says that God taught Adam and Eve the making of fire when they became frightened of the dark. Upon striking flame for the first time, Adam and Eve uttered the blessing over fire (Genesis Rabbah 11:2). The lighting of the havdalah candle ends the day of rest as it began: with the flame of the spirit. The spices renew my energy to go out into the world and use the teachings I learned while journeying into Shabbat.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, ritual-maker, and editor. She is senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, where she serves as editor of Journey and as a teacher of text and ritual.
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