Keeping the Sabbath

by Leah R. Berkowitz

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”—Exodus 20:8


In the midst of my first week in the rabbinate, I found myself combing the grocery stores in my new city for Sabbath candles and challah, the braided egg bread that we eat at festive meals. I must have been at my third store when a colleague called me on my cellphone. After explaining my predicament, I exclaimed, “Aren’t we supposed to have wives for this?”


From eighteen minutes before sundown on Friday until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday night, traditional Jewish families cease from work, unplug from technology, and spend the day praying in the synagogue and celebrating in the home. A traditional Jewish Sabbath is a family affair, a time for three-course dinners and prescribed marital lovemaking.

The burden of preparing for the Sabbath has traditionally fallen on the woman of the house, who is responsible for cooking, cleaning, and entertaining, even on what is supposed to be her day of rest, too. As a single, female rabbi, I have taken responsibility for celebrating the Sabbath both in the synagogue and in the home.

I'm certain clergy of all stripes, single and married, male and female, struggle with how to ready one's home for a holiday when there is no full-time homemaker to handle the chores. But even when I can get everything ready--the clean house, the baked bread, the three course meal on a beautifully set table--there's still something missing. The family.

Growing up, my own family was anything but traditional. Friday nights were evenly divided between going to synagogue, watching my brothers play in marching band, and curling up in front of the television. But no matter how we observed—or didn’t observe--the Sabbath, our one steadfast ritual was lighting the Sabbath candles as a family.

Sometimes, our festive meal came in a Pizza Hut box. Often, we were rushing in from one extracurricular activity and rushing out to another. But, even if we were in the middle of an argument, we stopped, lit the candles, chanted the prayer, and kissed each other and said, "Shabbat Shalom," (Sabbath peace) before resuming whatever was going on in our hectic lives.

Keeping the Sabbath in college was made easy by our large Jewish student organization. My denomination led lively, creative, musical services in a small circular Sociology classroom called “the fishbowl.” Afterwards, we would walk across campus together, where as many as 500 students from across the denominations would gather for a communal dinner.

A special permit was required to light Sabbath candles in the dorms, so my friends and I lit together at the beginning of services. I didn’t feel the lack of family then. My friends had become my family.

It was during my first year in seminary that I first had to light candles alone. I was living in Jerusalem, where there is literally a siren that goes off to remind women to light candles. But, even though I knew that the entire city was lighting their candles at the same time, it still felt lonely, lighting candles by myself.

My desire to become a rabbi was shaped, at least in part, by my Sabbath experiences at home, in the synagogue, at camp, in youth group, and in college. However, I soon discovered two great ironies of observing the Sabbath as a single rabbi.

The first irony is that, like all clergy, we have to work on our Sabbath. As the assistant rabbi of a 600 family congregation, I may lead as many as four worship services, teach a class, and officate at two or three life-cycle events before the Sabbath is over. When, exactly, am I supposed to be resting and reflecting?

The second irony is that, in devoting my life to teaching families to observe Sabbath, I've made it near impossible to create my own family Sabbath experience. Hundreds of miles from anyone in my family of origin, and years away from starting a family of my own, I sometimes light my Sabbath candles three times: once on the pulpit, once at a communal dinner, and once by my kitchen sink, alone.

I have always imagined myself, not only as a pulpit rabbi, but as a participant in--and creator of--lively Sabbath meals, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and a family of my own. This isn’t easy to do when I have to be at the synagogue by 7:30 p.m.

My senior rabbi has hosting the Sabbath meal down to a science. Guests arrive at six and sit down to eat at 6:15. He walks out the door at exactly 7:25, while his wife stays behind to serve coffee and clear the dishes (to give him credit for egalitarianism, he usually does the cooking). When I first attempted this timetable, my guests came late and mingled too long. Finally, panicking about being late, and not wanting to be rude to my guests, I tossed my keys to my neighbor and dashed out the door.

I now have a handful of close friends who know the drill. Every so often I have a few of them over for an early, simple meal, or meet them at a local diner so that I don't have to worry about the dishes. My predicament inspired me to create an early Sabbath service, so that once a month, I can have a leisurely meal after worship. Even that one time that I left my keys with the neighbors, I came home after services to find that my guests had loaded and run the dishwasher, and I felt blessed.

There is a legend that, on the Sabbath, a good angel and a bad angel accompany us home from the synagogue. If the house is in order and the candles lit, the good angel pronounces, “May it be so next week,” to which the bad angel has to say, “Amen.” But if the opposite is true, the bad angel says, “May it be so next week,” and the good angel has to say, “Amen.”

I don’t know what the angels say when they come with me to find my apartment empty, my candles burning in the sink so as not to catch fire while I am at synagogue.

But although the platonic ideal of the Sabbath often eludes me, I've found ways to treasure my day of rest that I never could have had in the traditional model, in which the woman is responsible for cooking, cleaning, and childcare. The Sabbath is a time when I unplug from technological distractions and curl up with a good book, something I never had the time or space to do when I was in a relationship. It is a time for long walks and long-distance phone calls, my one technological indulgence.

I’ve had to slow down my move towards a more traditional Sabbath observance—one without driving, spending money, or using electricity--because I honestly believe that God would not want me to spend the Sabbath alone in the dark. But angel or no angel, I strive to fill my Sabbath with moments of blessing and connection: with my congregants, with my family, with my friends, and with myself.

May it be so next week.

Guest author Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the assistant rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. She blogs at

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"The second irony is that, in devoting my life to teaching families to observe Sabbath, I've made it near impossible to create my own family Sabbath experience."

Amen and amen. As clergy and as a parent, I often wonder if my children will remember holidays as times we rushed to church so Mommy could work.

I think this would be great reading for the pastor/parish relations team or personnel committee at every congregation.

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