I was recently asked what my ideal Friday looked like and I thought I would try to write down an answer because I like Fridays, in a nervous kind of way. Fridays move towards a point, the moment when the flame begins to burn on the Shabbat candles. Until then the refrain is ‘get me to the candles on time’. Today that time 3.59, – which makes it all more urgent. Personally, I blame January, for making its days so short.
If I were asked ‘Why stress? Does it really matter to reach Shabbat on time?’ I would answer ‘Definitely’. To me all those ‘Don’ts’ in the Shabbat laws are a thick line or square drawn in the diary, to protect the time inside it and give it away to nobody (something I’m generally bad at doing). That time is not for emails, phone calls, shopping, or writing to a deadline. No! It’s time for God, and time for God in Jewish tradition mercifully includes, the best food of the week, the chance to talk with family, guests, community, reading, prayer, walking (with the dog), looking round the garden, and the study of Torah.
In fact, that’s how my dream Friday starts, with preparing the weekly Torah portion. I’ve never believed that you shouldn’t start thinking of what to say until you can see the whites of the congregation’s eyes. I love that ancient Jewish interplay of text and understanding. What does that word mean? What did it mean in the Talmud? What could it mean to us? Yearly as the stories in the Torah become more familiar, so too does the feeling ‘I never noticed that; I never understood that, before’. And next year, please God, it’ll be the same, only worse.
So here’s one useless member of the family hiding in his study: what about all the shopping and cooking? Well, even the Talmud doesn’t allow such behaviour. Rav Hisda diced the vegetables, it says, and Rav Nachman tidied the house. Male tokenism, one might think, and perhaps it was. But to me it’s the best part of the day, if Nicky and I can synchronise our hours in the kitchen. Peeling-the-apples-and-onions conversation is among the best conversation of all: ‘Don’t throw that away, the guinea pigs’ll eat it.’ (We have 40.) ‘Just hold the lid while I drain the potatoes.’ It’s even nicer if the children are there: ‘Would you help grate the cheese?’ (Our kitchen is a chicken-free zone. ‘Un-Jewish’, some say. Better for chickens’, I’d reply.)
We’ve open house tonight. ‘How many guests?’ Nicky asks. ‘Between ten and forty,’ I reply with precision. Once when driving, we heard a panicked woman call a cookery programme: ‘I’ve so many for Christmas dinner I can’t cope!’ ‘How many,’ the presenter coolly asked. ‘Eight!’ gasped the lady. Mossy fell off his seat in the car, from laughter.
Shabbat is community too. I don’t like Fridays where all I do is think of myself and my own. In the days when the Jewish community was truly close, food would be taken wherever there was illness. Someone’s door would always have been open for every meal. All that is still my dream (and partly our shul’s reality too, thanks to lots of people). I’d love to have a rota of challah-bakers every Thursday, so that we could take them as an ‘I’m thinking of you’ maybe with a pot of soup on Fridays. Shabbat isn’t something one does alone. There should be no Shabbat without giving Tseddakah either.
By now it’s probably 3.52. ‘How long have I still got?’ asks Nicky, who’s also had to resolve a dozen matters at work, between the saucepans. ‘About 7 minutes’, I answer. But we’re going to make it, just. And I think as she lights the candles of Rabbi Levi Lauer’s comment: ‘Imagine those flames looking at you, as you look at them, and asking you, “What deeds and values have happened in this place that it should deserve the blessing of peace?”’