Rethinking Shabbat’s Meaning During COVID-19

By: Alex Bennett, JBridge Intern

“And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.”- Genesis 2:3

Shabbat is one of the oldest and most sacred rituals in Jewish tradition, a day marking the intentional separation between work and relaxation. For generations Jews have gathered in the houses of loved ones and attended synagogue in observance of the day of rest. Dancing, singing, and studying amongst the community are staples of Shabbat joy. Yet in the world ravaged by COVID-19, these practices are no longer safe.

So how do we commemorate the day of rest in a time where the line between week and weekend has become so blurred? How can we celebrate Shabbat with a new understanding and respect for what it represents?

Amidst this global pandemic, the symbols present in Shabbat rituals achieve new levels of importance. The concepts of zachor (to remember) and shamor (to observe), traditionally linked to the two Shabbat candles, prompt us to reflect. Blessings over the children call for protection from the virus, while wine offers a moment of celebration after another week in quarantine. Finally, the braided challah reminds us of the intertwining roles we play in keeping our community safe from the pandemic.

I often find myself looking back at what life was like before COVID-19. I long for the day when things will be safe and I will be able to hug my friends again. But being stuck in this mindset of “what used to be” prevents me from truly being able to appreciate what I have now. More specifically, it prevents me from being able to cherish the sanctity of Shabbat.

Today, zachor prompts us to remember our past experiences, but not long for them. We observe Shabbat in this new, strange world and take time to recognize that we are in a moment of change. Since our perception of time has been altered while in quarantine, the intention behind our approach to Shabbat has become even more important.

We need to take extra time to center ourselves in this new reality, create a purposeful day of rest, and allow ourselves to find joy in the new meaning Shabbat symbols have taken on. These steps will provide us with the structure and clarity we need in such an unpredictable time.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his book The Sabbath, Shabbat was the first and only thing God deemed holy during the seven days of creation. Heschel emphasizes the importance of time in Judaism and how no two moments are the same. In this light, we must look at each Shabbat as something new. A time of reflection on the things we have learned, and a time for distinction between that which is holy and unholy.