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Why One Family Puts Down Their Cellphones, Car Keys and Pens Once a Week

Why One Family Puts Down Their Cellphones, Car Keys and Pens Once a Week

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By Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News - April 2, 2015
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"Shabbat shalom" and "Good Shabbos" greetings ring out as men shed their coats and put on smiles, exchanging stories from the workweek and settling into chairs placed around a small room in a strip-mall synagogue.

In the back corner, two men talk hotel deals. Rabbi Avremi Zippel turns away from the crowd to his prayer book, and the sound of shuffling pages replaces the casual banter.

"I'll send you a link for a discount when Shabbos is over," one of the men says as they turn their attention to the service. The offer hangs over the scene as the rabbi calls the room to order, shepherding in a more solemn air.

It's 6 p.m. on a Friday at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. Although men and women, young and old, are welcome, tonight's crowd is composed of around a dozen men. They will formally offer prayers for the start of the holy day while wives and mothers entertain guests and finish preparing food at home for the ceremonial meal to come.

The crowd begins its recitation, tripping at times over the prayers' Hebrew verses but forging on under the rabbi's guidance. At this worship service, the transformation is complete.

Out of small talk emerges the sacred, and the sabbath has arrived.

The fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20, directs believers to "remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy," completing all their work in six days and resting on the seventh. It's these verses, along with the story from Genesis of God resting on the seventh day of creation, that inspire the Friday service and all of Shabbat from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

For strict Sabbath observers like Rabbi Zippel and his family, following the commandment means spending a day without driving, flipping a light switch, checking a cellphone or running a dishwasher. In the modern world, however, many other believers engage with these words in a different way, carving out time for a two-hour church service on Saturday or Sunday and then moving on to different activities.

Rabbi Zippel, 23, the youth and program director at Chabad Lubavitch, said he understands modern resistance. For non-observers, Sabbath seems like an impossible sacrifice of time, requiring people to turn over a day's worth of potential productivity. And even for him and his family members, who have been abiding by Sabbath guidelines since birth, strict observance brings with it a kind of isolation. It dictates where they live and go to school and the friendships they sustain.

Although Sabbath-keeping is not easy, Rabbi Zippel calls it a blessing, an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends after a busy week and spend time in prayer and reflection.

"You can look at it as absence or as somebody making an active effort to rest, to relax, to put everything in in perspective," he said.

Guidelines for Sabbath observance

On a recent Thursday night in Rabbi Zippel's quiet apartment, his wife, Sheina, 22, kneads and braids challah bread dough next to baking pans and salad bowls. The fruits of her labor won't be served until Friday, but everything has to be ready before Shabbat begins.

Jews who observe the Sabbath refrain from 39 categories of work, such as cooking and writing, during the holy day of rest. Each restriction is associated with the work required to build the tabernacle, a process described in the Old Testament.

Activities that break the "spirit of Shabbat," such as driving or playing on a smartphone, are also discouraged because the focus of the day is meant to be family and faith, Rabbi Zippel said.

Jewish Sabbath observance has changed slightly over the centuries due to technological advancements. For example, Chabad Lubavitch of Utah doesn't hold Shabbat services in the dark; lights left on before the Sabbath begins remain lit. Additionally, Sheina Zippel can keep food warm by leaving it on low heat.

However, for the most part, long-held traditions remain in place. The prayers and psalms read on Friday night and at a longer service on Saturday morning have been passed down for generations.

Although many Americans view Sunday as the day of rest, Saturday — or its equivalent on early calendars — was the Sabbath for Jews and early Christians, said Craig Harline, a professor of history at Brigham Young University. To distinguish their religion from Judaism, Christians shifted their focus to Sunday, scheduling special worship services and, eventually, adopting their own Sabbath practices, he said.

The rules and regulations of the Christian Sabbath changed dramatically whenever different sects came to power, Harline added. The Puritans, for example, had a very strict sense of the day, banning all sports and play. It's likely that some ongoing stereotypes about Sabbath observance, such as that practitioners must only read sacred texts, originate from their practices.

"There was always a tension between religious groups about what could be done" on the Sabbath, a situation that continues to this day with debates over what counts as a legitimate excuse to skip church, said Harline, who wrote the book "Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl."

The Zippels' Sabbath activities vary depending on the season. There are always synagogue services to attend and meals with family, and in the summer they might take a walk, whereas the winter is better suited to reading or playing a board game.

Faithful isolation

Rabbi Zippel does not always lead Friday night prayers. Usually it's his father, who founded Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in the early 1990s.

The younger Rabbi Zippel moved back to Salt Lake City about two months ago. For the last 10 years, he had been away attending school, first a Chabad high school in Chicago, then college in London and, finally, a year of rabbinical studies in New Jersey.

It's common for Chabad members in cities with a small Jewish population to travel for school. The rabbi's younger sister, Sarah, 13, will depart for Chicago in the fall. Currently, she studies secular subjects like science and math at home with her mom and takes online classes to learn about her religion.

"We learn about the weekly Torah portion" and hear other traditional stories, Sarah said, noting that she's often asked to describe what she's learned each week during Shabbat meals.

Sarah talks about her family's Sabbath observance with the ease of someone who knows no other way. She's kept the day holy since she was born, just as her parents did, as well as her friends and the visitors invited to join her family for Friday night dinner.

To the Zippels, Shabbat is part of the lifeblood of their community and their faith. But the seriousness with which they approach the day can lead to isolation, making it harder to form friendships outside of the religion or join activities that aren't hosted by Chabad organizations.

Although she's Christian, the Rev. Lynne Baab said she's experienced firsthand the awkwardness that can exist between those who keep a Sabbath and those who don't. She and her husband have been observing their own version of a Sabbath since a stay in Israel from 1979 to 1980. Currently, Monday is the Baabs' day of rest. Although the Rev. Baab might check her email, she puts aside freelance writing projects and other work and focuses on reconnecting with friends, going for walks or just sitting and talking with her husband.

"When we got back to Seattle, we encountered a lot of resistance from Christian friends who heard about our practice," said the Rev. Baab, who is ordained through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is the author of "Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedoms in the Rhythms of Rest." People thought they were being unnecessarily zealous because Sabbath-keeping had become so foreign to much Christian practice.

The Rev. Baab said many Christians write off Sabbath observance as unnecessary legalism. They balk at the idea of having one less day to "keep up with the Joneses" and offer other biblical evidence to avoid the holy day, she said.

At Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, some members only observe a full Shabbat once a month. Others consider it enough to attend the Saturday service.

Rabbi Zippel acknowledged that Shabbat observance is a large commitment, one that seems overwhelming or intimidating to those not used to participating. But he believes accepting the challenge pays off in big ways.

"You really understand and appreciate the beauty of it while you're inside it," he said.

Celebration and sacrifice

Midway through the Friday night service, the men put aside their prayer books and join their voices in a joyful hymn to the Shabbat Queen, or the personified presence of the Sabbath. Chairs are pushed aside to make room for a fast-paced processional as claps and shouts circle the room with the chaotic crowd.

This moment encapsulates what non-observers misunderstand about the Sabbath, Rabbi Zippel said. Rather than a period of restriction or containment, he views Shabbat as a celebration and an opportunity to live out his faith fully and joyfully, free from the distractions of everyday life.

"The song compares the Shabbat to a bride and the Jewish people to a groom. … It's a lively atmosphere and everybody's in a good mood," Rabbi Zippel said. "The central theme of the whole service is gratitude. We're giving thanks to God for granting us the gift of Shabbat."

It's not that Sabbath observance always feels easy and worth it, the Rev. Baab said. It's that people who regularly keep a day holy can understand the blessings and joy that comes from discipline and sacrifice.

She compared keeping the Sabbath to her regular trips to the gym. She may sometimes dread lifting weights or riding an exercise bike, but the habits are essential to maintaining her mental and physical health.

"To me, it's a myth that we can have good things without some element of sacrifice. They go together," the Rev. Baab said.

Similarly, the Zippels can all name times they felt tempted to break Shabbat. Sheina remembers her frustration, as a child, at having certain toys taken away, for example. But they offer many more examples of how their love of it grows as they get older.

"As my week becomes more packed and stressful, I appreciate that island of time more," Rabbi Zippel said. "And now that I'm married, I appreciate having time together with my wife. We catch up on our weeks."

Sheina echoed him, explaining that she's always been surprised by descriptions of Shabbat that emphasize restrictions.

"It's always been an exciting, beautiful day that we look forward to as a family," she said. "When you're at a Shabbat meal, you don't feel like, 'Don't do this. Don't do that.' You feel like, 'Come! Let's have fun. Let's talk together.’ ”

And even though Sarah's only stressors are homework assignments and Torah lessons, she nodded along with Sheina's description, saying she looks forward each week to Shabbat time spent with friends or reading her favorite mystery novels.

Welcoming the sacred

At Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, the service ends with announcements and a final moment of prayer. The men make their way outside, some bundling up for a walk home while other, less strict Sabbath observers head to their cars.

Around 24 hours from now, smartphones will be turned back on, hotel deals emailed. But in the meantime, there are more prayers to say and family time to enjoy, another Sabbath of sacrifice and celebration to live out together.

 

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