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A Day of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

62 responses »

  1. Your dogs have Shabbat figured out just fine.

  2. The grass is always greener, Rachel–until it’s not. Everyone has a different way to rest. You do you. My husband will be asleep in his recliner, and I’ll be cleaning out a closet–you know–resting, our way. 😉

  3. Goodness, Rachel, I find all of your writings insightful and profound. To “wrestle with the fish hooks of the past…” truly spoke to me, though our journeys have been different. I have not had to endure the experiences that you have. Also “shelves” which cannot support all of our heaviest feelings and memories … that is such an apt visual. Take your rest, Rachel, to face fishhooks and unreliable shelves.

  4. I love your conclusion. We are far too hard on ourselves.

    “Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.”

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. It sounds like you’ve figured it out. High fives to you.

  6. We really are to hard on ourselves. Our worst critics as the saying goes ❤

  7. I too believe we are too hard on ourselves. You strive to make Shabbat look more like you “think” it should look. If you are trying to make it different from the other days by taking care of yourself IMHO you’re on the right track.
    A wonderful blog post. Thanks for your honesty and clarity

  8. I find it difficult to rest because I don’t feel that I’ve worked hard enough to deserve rest. I wish I could be as content as your girls!

  9. I found this so relatable. I stopped keeping Shabbat after about 10-11 years of being Shomer Shabbat. I had a lot of wonderful times keeping Shabbat. There were a lot of memorable meals, onegs, services, Shabbat zmirot, etc. To be honest, I really never found it restorative or relaxing, but it was fun and I didn’t have a huge need for a day of napping and reading, so I was pretty happy with embracing the social aspects of Shabbat. But once that ended (and it started ending before the pandemic), it was almost painful to keep it. The pressure of the candlelighting deadline was awful, Shabbat dinner came to feel like the culmination of all the failures of the week rather than something enjoyable (my marriage is flawed, for lack of better word) and Shabbat without any fun plans was torturous. It felt like a waste of time, and thinking about the amount of time I had wasted made me feel sick. So I quit. I feel conflicted about it at times, and I think I’d ultimately like to go back to some form of regular observance, although I have no interest in keeping 25 hours of Shabbat every week. Still figuring this out. Anyway, I really appreciated this post.

  10. Ok, trying again. Your post was well spoken, Rachel. You know, we compare ourselves to those smiling others, they’re living the life, it seems! But often that’s not their true face either. We’re all salesmen, to be slightly cynical about it. So no need to compare yourself to others. I think your great.

    I wonder though, if this need to always be doing something wasn’t made up recently, or at least emphasized by men of business who’ve conspired to create their dream world of the future on our backs? I mean, I look at my dog, and he doesn’t seem to feel guilty at all for sleeping all day long. Guilt never enters his mind. It’s sleep, eat, play, sleep again for him. For life! So I laughed when I read under that photo of yours, “You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

  11. The most beautiful description I have seen of the Sabbath is that it’s a day to think of the world as complete and just be in it, not trying to change it. I find that easier than trying to follow rules about what one can or cannot do. We live in a go go go, do do do, buy buy buy culture where plenty is never enough. Regularly taking some time where one says “it is good” is good, even if it isn’t a full day defined by archaic rules.

  12. My way of “resting” is to go for a long bike ride. I relax, put the world to rights and just enjoy being outdoors.i’m not suggesting you take up road cycling but maybe something else which helps you relax.

    • When I used to have more energy I really loved taking long walks with Cricket. She got to sniff the whole neighborhood and leave messages everywhere, and I got to wear out my anxiety for a little while.

  13. Enlightening history of a sound tradition. I like your shelves analogy

  14. Now is a good time to keep looking after yourself.

  15. With the concept of 24 hour opening and Sunday working hours, times have changed and people don’t have the time to relax, unwind, or take stock of their week. When we lived in Poole, both of us had stressful jobs but for different reasons, we had family local, and always seemed to be running around after someone. We took stock and decided that we worked Monday to Friday, Saturdays was for visiting parents, but Sunday was OUR DAY. We would load up the dog and go to the forest, Badbury Rings, the park or somewhere for a long walk to get some fresh air and exercise away from the hustle and bustle of our week. When we moved away, we still had our walks but these were any day now and visits Down South were long drawn out affairs traveling (some 7 to 9 hours each way) so not every week or month, though some family members expected it. We all need Me Time, it’s just a shame life gets in the way sometimes. Keep safe Rachel. Hugs and treats by proxy for the girls.

  16. There seems to be some of the productivity aspect in the “Protestant Work Ethic”, too. That belief implies that everything we do must have some sort of practical purpose. Personally, I believe a day of rest means a day to simply let go. Some things don’t need meaning or purpose.

  17. My husband has been reading a lot of books and wants us to observe the Sabbath as it’s described in the Bible. Not with all the rules, but without working. Because you’re right, we Americans can’t seem to stop even on the weekends. So far he and my youngest are doing a great job. Me? Not so great.

  18. “fish hooks of the past” — brutal image of ripping internal organs but oh so evocative and real.

  19. How sad that keeping the Sabbath sometimes becomes yet another opportunity to “do it right.” I hope that you can find little bits of peace each time without giving yourself grief about failed expectations. Just got up from a nap, by the way. Great little time of guilt free rest.

  20. Wishing you peace & joy! (Ps. I gave you a shout out in my Friday Finds post this week!)

  21. Rachel, this is a very informative post on the Sabbath. I enjoyed reading about your personal relationship with the Sabbath: the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you.
    That’s a pretty awesome purpose of the Sabbath. I’m not Jewish but I think that concept fits me perfectly.
    Your dogs are great Sabbath observers! ❤

  22. Cricket mentioned something about bringing back the Slivovitz.

  23. I think that your dogs are quite right. Do what you need to do and listen to your own needs. I like walking as it’s completely uncompetitive (am I walking as well as those people over there – doesn’t really happen). It also allows your girls to have their own social networking time. ‘I got 25 likes for that pee last week!’ 🙂

  24. Sunday was done rather specially for me, I guess. I mean, there was church followed by family activities that were more or less unique to Sunday. We went out to eat together. We took a drive, maybe making leisurely stops here and there. We got back, and maybe my siblings and I played outside. But in the evening we washed and–pajamaed, robed, and slippered–we watched television together, parents and children. Our homework should have been done by Sunday, and we were given a hard time if it wasn’t. This was Sunday for a while in my family, until growth in us children and alcoholism in my father made it all untenable. Except for the church part. We kept going.

  25. I’ve only been following your wonderful blog for a few months, but this was my favorite post so far. You seem to be such a natural at writing and self-reflecting at the same time! To my mind, that’s a good “Sabbath”, or healing time, no matter what day/time/hour it falls on. Check that off your worry list, maybe? 😉

  26. I’ve told Pretty many times that most of our problems in life could be resolved by lowering expectations of other events, other activities, other people, ourselves.
    She resists that by calling it “settling.” I’ll let you decide.
    Be kind to yourself.

  27. Well, we are not slaves now! Maybe we don’t need a ‘whole’ day of rest. Maybe a little chunk of rest every day, or every other day might suffice!
    I began with ten minutes a day of meditation. (That is, if you could call trying to stay still – meditation?) That stretched to half hour, sometimes more – whatever I could manage!
    Now, it’s not a question of ‘taking time for rest’. I rest as needed. But, this happened because of those ‘little chunks of rest’ I created for myself all those years past…
    Just saying…..

  28. I liked the way you expressed the need to create circumstances in which the soul can rest, and how much work that takes.

  29. Thank you for this evocative post. It was exactly what I needed this week- an invitation to revisit our traditions and to re-examine the childhood “stuff” that rides along with them in our hearts. I’m inspired by your openness to finding a Shabbat practice that’s meaningful to you. I’ll keep your words in mind while I wrestle with my own efforts to ~remember and keep holy~ in my own way. 🤗

  30. Pingback: A Day of Rest - Single parenting 101

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