The Sabbath and Life | פנים

The Sabbath and Life

Monday, January 15, 2018
Michal Berman, Executive Director, Panim
פנים איגוד ארגוני יהדות ישראלית
How is the Israeli Shabbat supposed to look? Can Israeli society rise above its conflicts and create a Shabbat that is acceptable to all? is an introductory article to the issue The Shabbat and Life, the second issue of the magazine 'The City Square'.


The Sabbath is perhaps the most successful Jewish startup of all times. Not only have most Western cultures embraced the notion of a day of rest, but the verb ש.ב.ת / sh.b.t appears in dozens of languages throughout the world. Whereas other cultures have no qualms with a weekly day of rest, surprisingly enough, the state of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, undergoes heated debates regarding the Sabbath. The Hebrew word for Sabbath, "Shabbat", is often associated with disputes over closing off roads in Jerusalem or other cities, operating or shutting down public transportation, opening or closing businesses and other such controversies. It appears religious-political power struggles in Israel have taken over the charecter of the Sabbath, and tarnished its dignity.

What is an Israeli Sabbath? What are its characteristics? To what extent is it Jewish or Israeli?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel devoted an entire essay to the Sabbath. He refers to the Sabbath in his writings as "a palace in time", and views the Sabbath as a unique and highly sacred day, unlike any other. The Sabbath teaches us human modesty and allows us to connect with the act of creation on a cosmic level. Among other things, Heschel writes the following:


"He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”


As a social being, man's weekly bustle plays out in a social setting. Hence, the Sabbath also gains its full meaning from social contexts which manifest core values, such as mutual responsibility and social cohesion. In today's reality, Israeli society appears to have been split into tribes. The sanctity Rabbi Heschel recognizes in the Sabbath does not necessarily refer to sanctity in the religious sense. Sanctity is derived from the practice of dedicating this special day to social values, such as family, community and the environment. It is worth noting Heschel's assertion that man, on this day, casts off feelings of irritation and anger, and devotes himself to the seed of eternity planted in his soul.

In this spirit, one might wonder whether it is indeed possible for Israeli-Judaism to create a Sabbath that is accepted by all segments of Israeli society. Can Israelis from different sectors rise above their disagreements and form a common denominator large enough to surpass the differences that set them apart? If so, what will be the nature of a Sabbath formed by Israeli-Judaism?

A significant basis for the Israeli Sabbath can be found in the well known institution "Oneg Shabbat", founded by Hayim Nahman Bialik in Tel Aviv. The national poet, who abandoned his Halakhic upbringing, remained bound by love to his cultural roots. He also voiced his opinion regarding the role of the Sabbath in Israeli-Judaism: "The Sabbath, as opposed to the culture of oranges and potatoes, has safeguarded our people throughout its years of wandering, and now, upon returning to the land of our ancestors, are we to dispose of it, as though it were a useless object?" These were the words of protest and the questions posed by Bialik in a letter addressed to his friends in Kibbutz Geva, as they discussed the appropriate way to mark the Sabbath in a secular Kibbutz. Bialik went on to say the following: "Without the Sabbath, the land of Israel shall not be built, it will be destroyed, and all of your labor will have been in vain. The people of Israel will never forsake the Sabbath, as it is not only the heart of Israeli existence, but the heart of human existence. Without the Sabbath, the image of G-d and the image of humankind cease to exist in the world." Bialik was not content with voicing his objections. He took active steps to ensure Israeli-Judaism held on to the notion of the Sabbath. He founded the well known institution "Oneg Shabbat" in Tel Aviv, based on the verse "ve'karata la'shabbat oneg" (וְקָרָאתָ לַשַּׁבָּת עֹנֶג / "and you call the Sabbath a delight", Isaiah 58:13). Many people were swept away by "Oneg Shabbat", which introduced a Jewish secular model for the Sabbath. Bialik undoubtedly considered the Sabbath to be a crucial component in the development of Israeli-Judaism within the context of a newly founded state. As a result, it is clear why he chose to invest considerable efforts into institutionalizing the Sabbath in Israeli culture, as he saw fit.  

As years passed and political struggles over the nature of the Sabbath intensified, an attempt was made to form a broad agreement that would serve as the basis for constitutional and social dialogue in the State of Israel. The Gabison-Meidan Covenant, composed in the early 2000's, attempted to resolve religious and secular relations, with substantial reference to the Sabbath. The covenant established the following principle: 'Yes' to cultural activities, 'No' to business and trade. The principle was based on the assumption that each side would be willing to forgo significant values in order to create an inclusive social covenant that would prevent a destructive debate over the Sabbath. Rather than focus on the sacrifices each side would be asked to make, the covenant suggests both sides concentrate on the mutual benefit derived from living together peacefully. The covenant was well received by a wide range of social circles. Nonetheless, it failed to resolve even the slightest debates over the Sabbath. Furthermore, years after the covenant was formed, cultural trends and economic powers seem to have heightened the dispute over whether or not work should be permitted on the Sabbath day, given today's consumer culture and virtual world.

While working on my M.A research paper in Israeli-Judaism, I held an interview that revealed the following story. A bona fide secular family, who had recently joined one of the Mirkam network's religious-secular communities, was invited to an intriguing and mysterious event called "Se'uda Shlishit" (the third meal). Since the family led a secular lifestyle, it was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of religious lingo. The family tried to decipher the meaning of the term. In their attempt to solve the mystery, they counted three meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner, and showed up Friday evening for what they believed to be "Se'uda Shlishit". They were met by their baffled hosts, a religious family, who expected their guests to arrive closer to Motzei Shabbat (Saturday evening). This story may shed some light on the encounter between two worlds that take part in developing and defining Israeli-Judaism as we know it. Two worlds in Israeli society that are, unfortunately, divided, alienated and ignorant of one another.

Even though the Hebrew language serves as a profound common denominator in Israeli-Judaism, each group possesses its own distinct terminology, known as "religious" and "secular". In order to come together, both families had to overcome an invisible cultural gulf that separates between religious and secular tribes in Israel. The language, supposedly shared by all Israelis, includes specific idioms and codes that are understood only  by one group.

This second edition of "Kikar Ha'ir – A stage for Israeli-Judaism" offers different ways to view and approach the institution of the Sabbath in Israel. It offers Jewish based rituals, which focus on community and relate to modern Israeli life. Rituals that have the power to uplift one's spirits, whether religious or otherwise, and form a meaningful communal connection.

The State of Israel is home to diverse sectors, including religious, secular and non-Jewish minorities, who have reached comprehensive agreements regarding the Sabbath within their shared urban living environment. Some of the articles examine the Halakha as a basis for the Sabbath and its relevance to secular life. This edition also discusses Israel's consumer culture which has, over the past decade expanded to a large extent, and plays an increasingly significant role in the Israeli Sabbath.

Is it possible to find a broad, accepting path that will enable each and every person to find a “palace in time” for the Sabbath in his/her life, thereby creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? Will we succeed in forming a vibrant cultural, spiritual and social life, in which the Sabbath provides a meaningful foundation for Israeli-Judaism? These are the questions that lay at the heart of this edition.

Panim is an umbrella organization that is home to sixty organizations operating in the Israeli-Jewish educational, communal and cultural sphere. Panim organizations represent the entire Jewish spectrum in Israel, including religious, secular, masorti, conservative and reform. For over 25 years Panim organizations have been adapting the Jewish existence to Israeli life.  The organizations operate throughout Israel and lead hundreds of study programs, communal activities, conferences, festivals and ceremonies. Our goal for the coming year is to examine our work with regard to the Sabbath, and to dedicate this edition to the notion of the Sabbath as a leading Jewish value and important foundation in Israeli society.  

I wish to express my deep gratitude to the journal's editorial board, led by its chief editor, Professor Avi Sagi, who allowed me, for the second time, to develop this fascinating topic. Sincere thanks to Odaya Goldschmidt for her dedicated and professional work in publishing this edition. My thanks to all of the writers, who were open and trusting in allowing us to accompany them throughout their writing and thinking process. I wish to thank the UNPLUGGED Sabbath project and its director for its support and for its partnership during the challenging first year of its "Beit Ha'yotzer" project.

We had the privilege of establishing a most welcome and fruitful cooperation with the Keren Avi Chai UNPLUGGED Sabbath project. I am happy to include the blessings of the "She'arim – Mag'shimim Ya'hadut Yis'ra'elit" CEO and founder of the UNPLUGGED Sabbath project, Dr. Ruth Kabesa Abramzon.


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