Thursday night and Friday afternoon, at my house, are for cooking. Not the rushed, hurried cooking that happens the rest of the week to keep stomachs filled. That cooking is utilitarian. That cooking is focused on nutrition and speed, pared down to the most basic flavors and meals that can be consumed between the demands of life. It’s food that feeds the body, but leaves the soul hungry.
When I cook for the Sabbath each week, it’s a creative outlet. It’s a celebration. It literally is a taste of the world as I’d wish it to be, rather than the world that is. I try new recipes. I take more time. There is music playing in the kitchen and family members wander in and out and are grabbed by the arm, a spoon thrust in the face, with an emphatic, “You’ve GOT to taste this!” The house fills with scents that aren’t there the rest of the week and we begin to get into the spirit of what, for us, is a weekly holiday. Sometimes the menu is a nod to my husband’s ancestors who lived on foods of varying colors of beige, but tasty nonetheless. Ashkenazic food works as well in our cold climate as it did in the Ukraine and it sticks to the ribs with ingredients that will grow even in my garden. Other times, I get cabin fever and the menu travels to Sephardic lands and the table is filled with tomatoes and fresh vegetables, a riot of color and spices. We’ve even done chili for Shabbat.
The constant, though, is Challah in one form or another and it’s that scent that I most associate with the Sabbath. Warm, earthy yeasty bread rising and baking or, as sometimes happens, bought fresh. Low carb rules are suspended for the Sabbath queen.
I grew up with bread baking in the farmhouse almost every week, but it was simpler bread, delicious slathered with butter and still hot. We also ate around the table for dinner as a family, discussing our days. Still, celebrating the Sabbath is more. The closest thing I can compare it to in the culture I grew up in would be Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, where I grew up, no one worked or went to school and families got together, even extended families. We’d eat a large, leisurely meal and catch up. We’d also always complain that it was so rare that everyone could get away from their busy lives to spend time like this, without a schedule, without rush, simply connecting. When we first started keeping the Sabbath, it was like Thanksgiving every week, that same feeling of escape from the outside world and connection.
Except, it’s also more than that, too.
Words fail to fully capture what the Sabbath is. Even the word in English has kind of become muddled, mixed in with other ideas of a day of rest that don’t quite capture the same emotion. The Sabbath is holy in the more original sense of the world…it’s set apart. It exists outside the week in the way that only a few holidays did for me growing up. Yet, it also changes the rest of the week in a way that my holidays growing up never had the power to impact the rest of the year. The rest of the week, my mind is pointed in a different direction than it would be if that week wasn’t sandwiched between Sabbaths. That sense of being consistently fed helps me focus more on the real priorities of life on the regular days. I’m more aware of how I spend my time, of how I interact with the people around me. I’m less likely to fall into autopilot, mindlessly living my life reacting instead of acting with intention.
As a conversion candidate, I also have to break the laws of the Sabbath, at least in some minor way every week. It’s a reminder that Shabbat doesn’t belong to me, not just yet. It’s a gift that was given to Jews that I’m lucky enough to get to borrow and practice with, but that act of breaking it is my way of acknowledging that it’s just on loan. When I can, I put off that act until just before we light the Havdalah candles. The Sabbath is supposed to be happy and we’re instructed to avoid thinking of sad things if possible, but the ritual that ends the Sabbath always seems a sad one to me, so it’s fitting to bring them closer together. Havdalah, to me, is the beginning of the end of the weekend and the return to every care and concern that could wait until after Shabbat. We can’t stay in that time and space and it helps us come down from it a little more gently and helps us express that reluctance to leave. It feels fitting to delay my own reminder that I’m a visitor here to closer to that time.
But, Thursday night and Friday morning are all about hope, about potential. Every recipe has the potential to be the best yet and every scent of a pot simmering or something delicious baking is the hope that this Shabbat will be everything we hope. As I taste each dish, as we’re instructed to do so that we get a taste of Shabbat before it comes, I feel like I’m also tasting what life might be like after conversion. If Shabbat is, as it’s said, “A taste of the world to come,” then for me, it’s also a taste of a life I hope is coming.
But for now, it’s enough that my kitchen smells wonderful, like Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom to you, or Gut Shabbos, as my husband’s family would say!