Why Do I Observe Shabbat?
By Daniella Robicsek Botnick
My good friend Alex Fleksher asked me to write an article that attempts to answer that question. I find the question difficult. While I could give many intellectually compelling reasons why I observe Shabbos, I honestly don’t think about Shabbos that way, and I don’t think I ever did because I grew up in an observant household.
A much easier question for me to answer is: what does Shabbos feel like to me? Thinking about Shabbos in this way is much more in line with why I chose to continue to observe it into adulthood.
When I was a child growing up in my home, Shabbos was a day when I saw both my parents and all my siblings for at least two meals in a row (on long summer Shabboses we sometimes ate Shalosh Seudos, the third afternoon meal, together, too). This was not an insignificant fact as my father worked many long, hard hours as a physician and he rarely managed to come home for a family dinner during the week. For me, Shabbos was synonymous with family mandated together time. While not every memory of this time together was perfect, it created a huge sense of belonging and stability for me – I knew that no matter how busy or rushed my parents seemed during the week, we would all reconvene and decompress together for 25 hours. I have many wonderful and indelible memories from experiencing these Shabboses together. Simply writing about it makes me feel an enormous sense of gratitude that my parents raised us in a Shabbat observant household. Those experiences had a huge impact on my development as a person in all respects. When I think back on it, growing up in a family who observed Shabbat conjures feelings of security, belonging and feeling loved.
I think for me that God was introduced into the equation of Shabbos when my parents sent me to a wonderful religious Zionist camp – camp Moshava (outside of Toronto- in Ennismore, Ontario.). I’m fairly certain that if you ask any Moshava camp alum what their favorite memories were from camp, at or near the top of the list would be memories connected to Shabbos. Somehow being together in our own little village where we created our own community in our own little space, and even our own time, really helped connect me to fully experiencing Shabbos as I believe it is meant to be experienced –utterly connected to our friends, (who became like extended family), and completely ensconced by the sanctity of the day. Absolutely everyone observed Shabbos and we performed the rituals together.
We began preparing for Shabbos the entire day on Friday- cleaning our bunk even became its own sacred and somehow fun ritual. Writing “Shabbat o’ grams” on Friday afternoon to all your 50 best friends to make their Shabbos more complete also became part of the ritual. Eating yucky sandwiches for lunch on Friday was tolerable because you knew that the delicious Kokosh cake of Shabbat morning was on its way. And Shabbos prayers at camp were by far the most spiritual experiences I had as a child. Of course as a young girl going into 4th grade I had no clue what 90% of the words meant during davening (prayer) but I remember feeling God’s presence when we davened and sang together, particularly during “slow shira” ( slow songs) at the third meal of Shabbat. The tunes, the stickiness of the hot room and the intensity of the davening that I saw on so many people’s faces, introduced me to God through prayer as a young child. When I think back on it, growing up as a child fortunate enough to go to sleep away camp, Shabbos at camp conjures up intense feelings of connectedness – to my friends, and that whole little village we created, and definitely connectedness to God. Shabbat at camp was truly a spiritually profound experience.
Now as an adult, as a wife and as a parent, what does Shabbos feel like? For all three of those categories, Shabbos feels like a tremendous gift from God. A gift to STOP and smell the flowers of life without feeling like I have 50 other things I should be doing as an adult/wife/mother. When else but on Shabbos (or the holidays) do I put away all electronic devices to which I am so utterly dependent during the week? How do I simply shut them off without any thought of checking them for 25 hours? If you asked me to do that on any other day of the week I simply WOULD NOT be able to! My life literally depends on them and when I am tempted to just shut these devices off for a bit during the week, I realize that I simply cannot because I know that it wouldn’t be responsible of me. I am compelled and repelled by the efficiency and necessity of these electronic devices. But come Shabbat, there is no need to justify or rationalize shutting down. This feels like true freedom.
As a wife, when else do I just sit around discussing and analyzing all the different aspects of our lives with my husband with a cup of tea in my hands and no children in our faces for at least a few hours? (We have four young children and we manage to do this Friday night after they’ve all gone to bed). When else would we find the time to simply enjoy each other’s presence like we did when we first met each other and not be compelled by 50 other obligations and interests? Only on Shabbos. This feels like a true gift from God. The ultimate marriage counselor.
As a mother, when else do I simply have no choice but to force my four delicious and exhausting children to find some other ways to entertain themselves other than through electronic devices? On Shabbos my children really play with each other and their friends, and even us(!) for hours. The most interesting and creative games get created on Shabbos. Last week my kids built some kind of complex tunnel system using every chair in the house. Another time they took out every breakfast item from the pantry and fridge and created a breakfast buffet for us (complete with forks and napkins laid out perfectly) and surprised us with this wonderful treat. And I didn’t get mad at them either of these times. Mostly because I was grateful that they let my husband and I sleep in, but also because I was proud of them for playing together without fighting for about (3!) hours. And I was proud of them for being so creative. And I was shocked that this could never happen during the week (even on Sunday). So as a mother, I again feel that God is reaching down and giving me a gift on Shabbos. The gift of seeing the most beautiful parts of my children that I often miss during the hustle and bustle of the week.
So to answer: what does Shabbos feel like to me? First and foremost, it feels like an incredible gift from God. It has been said: “More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbost has kept the Jews.” And I couldn’t agree more. More than I have observed Shabbos, Shabbos has sustained me, made me more human, more humble, more connected to my friends, family, community and ultimately to God. And for that, I am eternally indebted.