Reflections on The Shabbos Project
I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on The Shabbos Project, which has really been an historic occasion for the South African Jewish community.
I am an optimist by nature, and so when we launched The Shabbos Project I expected and hoped that it would have an impact and that people would respond. But I was cautious and figured that this would be a long-term project, that the first year the numbers would be small and that slowly, year by year, these numbers would increase. Yet I have been amazed and surprised by the incredible, overwhelming response.
Reports have been pouring in this week, via email, SMS, and on Facebook. People have been sharing how they kept Shabbos and what it meant to them. Reports have been pouring in from all of our shuls as well. Rabbis and congregants have told me how their shuls were as full as on Yom Kippur, and in some cases even fuller; how people came on Friday night and on Shabbos day; about all the youth programmes, dinners and luncheons being held; and how shul parking lots were virtually empty of cars. People had such a wonderful time and what is remarkable is that this took place on such a large scale, right across our community.
Stories are pouring in about how amazed people were at what Shabbos had to offer. Just the other day I was talking with a CEO of a large public company, who kept Shabbos with his young family for the first time. He was saying how special it was to walk to shul together with his kids and how their friends came back to their house for lunch after shul. The kids weren’t nagging to watch television or use their iPads. Everyone sat and had lunch together, the kids played together and they even had a chance to have a Shabbos afternoon sleep. He said it was the most amazing experience, from a family point of view, from a spiritual point of view, and even from a physical point of view.
I would like to share with you an email I received last Friday, just before The Shabbos Project began:
Thirty-eight years ago, when I was seven years old, my father passed away. Before he was niftar, my older sister and I used to walk to shul with him every Shabbos. We had Shabbos candles burning; we had Pesach. After his passing, this all ceased. Many years later my mother went on to marry a non-Jew. Baruch Hashem I have a beautiful shomer mitzvos home, but my sister and mother moved on to an Eastern philosophy.
Yesterday, I called my mother to see how she was. She asked me how she could keep her tea warm for Shabbos morning. I could not believe what I was hearing. She then went on to say that she was looking for her Shabbos candlesticks and asked if I have candles for her to light. I told her I was in Friends’ Bakery that morning when a lady came up to me and gave me a set of candles. I light with oil and didn’t want to take something I wouldn’t use but decided to accept them. They were meant for her. After discussing some other things I hung up the phone and amid a lot of tears called my sister who had also married a non-Jew and got divorced last year. I told her what our mother was doing. She could hardly speak as she told me that she would join my mother in lighting Shabbos candles. I cried so many tears that my portable phone had water damage. My sister joined us for a while at the magnificent challah-making evening last night and stood with tears in her eyes as she listened to you speak.
And so tonight, for the first time in thirty-eight years, there is a house in the heart of Glenhazel that is usually dark, sad and overgrown that will be radiating with the glow of Shabbos candles and Shabbos kodesh.
This is but one of many examples of how Shabbos has touched people in the deepest, most profound way. Messages are pouring in about people, young and old – some even in their eighties – keeping Shabbos for the first time in their lives. It has had a deep emotional effect on people and has left people uplifted and inspired. There is a wave of excitement that has swept right across the country, affecting people from all walks of life. In Port Elizabeth there were well over 100 people who came to sleep at the shul. They had mattresses put out so that people could sleep there in order to keep Shabbos properly. Similar stories of dedication and commitment to Shabbos are coming in from all over the country, from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London.
I’m sure you’ve seen the email message we’ve sent out to the entire community, requesting that you tell us your stories. I cannot emphasize enough how meaningful this would be; please tell us your stories, so that we can all be inspired. I would really appreciate it if you would email them to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. I read each of these emails, and would love to hear from you. We are compiling these stories, and so we have also set up a hotline, on 011-242-5550, where you can call and someone will take down your story, or you can just record your story. Please share a little bit of your experience with us, where you come from and what motivated you to join The Shabbos Project, so that we can all be inspired from each other.
Keeping it together
What has been amazing about The Shabbos Project is that we all kept it together, as a whole community. I heard that the caddies at the Houghton Golf Course were complaining that their business on Shabbos morning was completely down because people had cancelled golf to keep Shabbos. I heard of hairdressers closing their shops because all their Jewish clients cancelled and there weren’t enough clients to service on the day. And I heard of personal trainers at gyms taking the day off because their clients cancelled for Shabbos. I even heard of soccer coaches who run clinics on a Saturday morning, who cancelled their clinics because all the little boys cancelled in order to keep Shabbos. This happened everywhere, far and wide. The reactions have been so positive, and this is what has made The Shabbos Project truly special. The community has really been moved in the most profound, exciting and beautiful way.
The energy of The Shabbos Project has been felt not just on a communal scale across the country, but on a global scale as well. Thanks to Facebook, email and YouTube, people are hearing all about The Shabbos Project and they are amazed. Emails have been pouring in from Australia, Canada, England and Israel. Journalists are calling from all over the world. The Jewish media is interested to know about what took place here. It was so widespread and had such a deep impact and real effect on so many people.
What actually happened? What caused this social earthquake? How did this huge social movement spring up and move us all?
Shabbos touches upon every aspect of our lives
The answer is multifaceted. There is no one simple explanation for what happened, and on a certain level it is very individual; different people are moved by different things. But one aspect is the power of actually doing something. One of the great secrets of Judaism, as a way of life, is that it’s not just a religion for the mind and the soul, and not just a system of belief. Of course we have the Thirteen Principles of Faith, and philosophy and ideology are a crucial part of being Jewish; but Torah Judaism is about action as well, about getting involved and doing things.
Each person has different aspects – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. The Torah addresses each of these aspects of what it means to be a human being. We have some mitzvos that have to do with the mind, like the study of Torah. We have some mitzvos that are very spiritual, like prayer. We have some mitzvos that are emotional – for example, the mitzvah to mourn when a close relative passes away. And then there are some mitzvos that are physical – for example, taking a lulav, or lighting Shabbos candles. Hashem has given us a system that addresses every aspect of being human, such that our Judaism is not compartmentalised. And when we experience the totality of what it means to be a Jew – physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – that has a powerful impact on us.
Shabbos is a mitzvah that touches us on all levels. It has an intellectual dimension, which relates to our belief system; it attests to the fact that G-d created the world, as we say in the Shabbos Kiddush. It has a spiritual dimension as well; we have special prayers on Shabbos and we sing the Shabbos zemirot. Shabbos also has an emotional dimension, in terms of the bonding between parents and children, between friends, within the family and within the community. And Shabbos also has a physical dimension; we walk to shul, we eat delicious food, and there is a special mitzvah to sleep.
And there is a special power in simply doing a mitzvah; the sheer experience of doing something which is holy and special, something which is part of our heritage going back thousands of years, has a profound impact on us.
Being active participants in Shabbos
Often, when we are invited to attend functions in the Jewish community, we do so as passive participants. The Shabbos Project was different; we were not being invited to attend a function, but to be a creative partner, to go out and make this Shabbos happen. Being actively, physically involved in the mitzvah had such a profound impact, and this is what made the challah–making in the streets last Thursday night so amazing. Close to 3000 women were out in the cordoned-off streets, connecting with one another, making challah and saying the blessings. It was very engaging and that is made the experience so empowering.
Mitzvos have that impact, and particularly Shabbos. This is expressed in a beautiful verse from the book of Psalms, which says, “Hashem blesses His nation with strength,” on which the Talmud comments, “Strength – that is Torah.” Our Torah and mitzvos give us strength and energy; their power shakes the world. The Gemara says that when Hashem gave us the Torah, the whole world shook. On this last Shabbos, as we all kept this mitzvah together, the country shook. There was an almost tangible wave of excitement and inspiration felt throughout South Africa. This is the power of Shabbos: it creates a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual energy, connecting us with Hashem and with those around us. It is the energy of doing something real, something special and holy, which really shakes the world.
The Shabbos Project has stirred and uplifted our community in the most beautiful and inspiring way. Let us continue this magic by sharing our stories. Please send in your e-mails at email@example.com, or call our hotline, 011-242-5550. Share the magic so that we can hear from each other and savour this awesome historic experience of the South African Jewish community.