Rituals: Allowing Sabbath to Embrace Me

Photo credit: Joyce Palevitz

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post about keeping Sabbath continues our quarterly series on the making of rituals. Whether happy or sad, quotidian or momentous, these watershed moments in our lives leave a mark on us and can be honored, as humans have done for centuries, by using ritual to set apart such times. The rituals shared in this series are often personal and reflect the unique spiritual path of each writer.]

By Joyce Palevitz

There are not many things I have done ritualistically, or even consistently, over the past 15 years or so, but keeping Sabbath is one of them. It may, in fact, be the only thing I have done consistently. Judith Shulevitz writes, “At some point, we all look for Sabbath.” In my case, I wasn’t looking for it, but it found me. It found me in the reflections of a thoughtful Benedictine monk at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Brother James simply encouraged us to think about what it might mean for us to keep Sabbath. I was a busy (and pretty self-important) management consultant, working for a global company, and living in New York City. I was on email 24/7 and prided myself on being responsive at all hours of the day or night. It is true that on Sundays I did go to church, but even going to church was an opportunity to “work,” as anyone in a church leadership position will instantly recognize. When I came home from church, I checked email and often got some work in—you know, in order to be “ahead” of things come Monday.

Sabbath came looking for me. Br. James’ invitation spoke to me. I still have the list of things I wrote down that would help me observe Sabbath: a day without work, emails, shopping, spending money or thinking about money, or even multi-tasking. I asked myself: What am I a slave to? I jotted down what the day might include instead: reading, museums, time with friends, a long walk, time for reflection. I envisioned a day when I would just do one thing at a time (I was a proud multi-tasker).

I didn’t know then that I was beginning a ritual that would change my life. I do believe that Sabbath-keeping is life changing. Abraham Joshua Heschel says that, on Sabbath, “Eternity utters a day.” What it has meant for me is the opportunity to let time stand still for a day and in that spaciousness of time I rediscover myself, who I am and Whose I am. It began to dawn on me that it takes time to be a human being. Giving myself this time allows me to be more fully alive.

My Sabbath ritual has evolved over the years. Here is what it looks like today. Every Saturday, usually around 5 or 6 pm, I move into Sabbath time. Keeping Sabbath requires preparation. I cannot get what I need from the Sabbath if I don’t prepare. For me, this means closing down apps and open tabs on my phone, computer and iPad to get rid of anything that might distract me. I expect that some thoughts or ideas will occur to me during this time, so I get out a piece of paper where I can just make a note that will be waiting for me on Monday. I am a neat freak; if I am to have the kind of Sabbath I want, I have to get my house in order because there will be no cleaning or tidying or anything of that sort on Sabbath. What otherwise would seem like a chore becomes a loving preparation. Thus, the first step is to think about what I want to cease doing and get that out of my sight lines. I think about what will help me rest. I think about what I want to embrace – perhaps some reading, something that will “gild my soul.” I make sure I have food ready to eat, especially if I don’t want to spend my Sabbath time doing a lot of cooking (although sometimes that’s okay too!).

And then, it is time to welcome Sabbath. I have created a little bit of liturgy as a ritual to mark the beginning of Sabbath time. I read Psalm 148, then a passage from Revelations, I light a candle, and say a prayer that I adapted for Sabbath. Then I say (out loud) “Welcome Sabbath”. With those words, my Sabbath has begun.

I really do welcome Sabbath. I think of it as entering a time that has a generosity of spirit. There is an abundance of time. No Sabbath is ever the same for me. Sometimes, it is filled with activity: seeing friends or family, or immersing myself in a book. Sometimes, it is ridiculously idle. Because there are no to-dos for the next 24 hours, I am free of responsibility; I am free of “should’s” and “musts” and anything that smacks of “to do”. There are no obligations; there is only time.

In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath lasts 25 hours to convey a reluctance to leave Sabbath and return to “ordinary” time. I guess it’s a bit like that last day of vacation when we know we have to pack up the car with the suitcases and the beach chairs, but we linger just a bit longer to absorb the sky and the sea and the sand so the memory will carry us through to the next time.

At some point during the early evening on Sunday, I decide it is time to end Sabbath. I have a liturgy for that too! I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the Sabbath, sing a hymn (“Now Thank We All Our God”), blow out the candle, and eat something sweet (this is part of a Jewish Sabbath). And Sabbath is over, at least for now.

Here’s the thing. In all these years of keeping Sabbath, I have never, not once, not ever, regretted creating this space for myself. Come Monday, I have never thought to myself, “Oh I wish I had done just a bit of work.” Not once. Not ever. I have organized my life this way even though our culture doesn’t support it; our work tries to tell us we can’t do it; heck, even most of our friends and relatives wouldn’t understand it. I come back home to Sabbath every week to immerse myself for a few hours in the eternity of time that Sabbath lets me enjoy; to embrace life fully and to let it embrace me; to let the peace of the Sabbath take me through my coming days.

Shabbat Shalom.

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7 Responses

  1. I’m going to print out your essay so that I can read it again and again, both as part of my daily practice (so that it germinates in my soul) and on Saturday afternoons. Thank you, Joyce, thank you.

  2. Thank you for this, I love learning from those ahead of me in this practice! My family and I have had a rocky start to a sabbath practice over the last year and a half, but it has been something we look forward to each week. With 3 young children and working as a pastor it can be tough to make that space. I hadn’t named it before, but I also have never once wished that we’d spent our Sunday afternoons running errands, catching up on work etc. I look forward to reading more from you about the topic!

  3. Joyce, I just love this so much. I’ve been dipping my toe into Sabbath-keeping and I am so grateful for your writing and inspiration.

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