12 June 2020
Bread without war and
a foretaste of the future
without jealousy or strife
In his commentaries in the Authorised Prayer Book, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks includes a number of Shabbat meditations for Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
He explains that lighting the Shabbat candles to welcome the Shabbat on Friday evenings is a positive rabbinic commandment, symbolising shalom bayit, or domestic peace. He says the Shabbat candles also symbolise the light of the Divine presence, which illuminates relationships within the home.
In one of his footnotes, Dr Sacks recalls how Rabbi Akiva noted that the Hebrew words for man (ish) and woman (ishah) both contain the letters of esh, ‘fire.’ Each contains one extra letter – yod in the case of man, heh in the case of woman – and that that these two letters together spell one of the names of God. Rabbi Akivah concluded: ‘When husband and wife are worthy, the Divine presence dwells between them.’
The ancient custom is to light two candles, representing the two dimensions of Shabbat: shamor or guarding, observing the prohibitions of Shabbat; and zachor, keeping its positive commandments.
Two loaves of bread are blessed as reminders of the double portion of manna that fell in the wilderness on Fridays so that the people did not have to collect food on the Shabbat itself (see Exodus 16: 22). The challot symbolise bread without war, a foretaste of the future in which, as Maimonides said, ‘there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife.’
Already in Talmudic times, Shabbat was seen as a bride, and the day itself as a wedding.
Dr Sacks continues, ‘Rabbi Chanina robed himself and stood on the eve of Shabbat at sunset, and said, ‘Come let us go and welcome Shabbat the queen.’ Rabbi Yannai donned his robes and said, ‘Come O bride, come O bride’.’
In one of his Shabbat meditations, Dr Sacks recalls how the Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, was once looking out of his window, watching people rushing across the town square. He leaned out asked one, ‘Why are you running?’
The man replied, ‘I am running to make a living.’
The rabbi replied, ‘Are you so sure that your livelihood is running away from you and you have to rush to catch it up? Perhaps it’s running after you, and all you have to do is stand still and it will catch up with you?’
Still today, in our busy, modern world, Rabbi Sacks observes, Shabbat is the day we stand still and let our blessings catch up with us. Without it, we can be so busy making a living that we hardly have time to live. We risk making the journey while missing the view.
On Shabbat, he says, we cease striving for what we do not have, and thank God for what we have.