Jeremy dropped his books on the floor and breathed a deep sigh as he slowly crumpled into his father’s easy chair. Only 12 years old, his lanky body already filled the chair, and his legs reached well beyond.
Having lived with him and his family for the past five years, I was very much in tune with my grandson’s moods. For the most part, the boy was upbeat and cheerful but every once in a while, he acted as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Now what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Eli can’t play baseball tomorrow. Something about it being the Sabbath.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I replied. “His family is Jewish, aren’t they?”
“So that means he can’t play baseball on Saturday?” Baseball was Jeremy’s favorite sport and the thought that his friend couldn’t enjoy it with him seemed wrong.
“Or much of anything else.” I was in the kitchen preparing a salad for dinner but kept working as my grandson continued his questions.
“Why? Just cuz he’s Jewish?” he asked.
“Yes, Jeremy. You see, most Jewish people don’t go out, play sports or do any work on Saturday. It’s known as observing the Sabbath or Shabbat as it is called in Hebrew.”
“You mean they just stay home and stare at the walls?”
Chuckling to myself, I remembered thinking the same thing when I was Jeremy’s age and one of my Jewish friends couldn’t join me at a Saturday movie matinee. My family usually observed the Lord’s Day but didn’t give up anything more than manual labor. It seemed unfair that my friend’s family made her stay home. Of course, when I asked my friend how she felt about the whole thing, she said that not only was keeping the Sabbath not unfair, it was something she actually enjoyed doing. In fact, she even said it was better than going to the movies.
“No,” I told Jeremy, “they don’t just stare at the walls. They spend the hours from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday night reading spiritual books and worshipping God.”
Jeremy pulled himself up from the chair, walked into the kitchen, rescued a carrot from my chopping board and plopped down on a counter stool. His appetite for knowledge was almost as large as his appetite for food.
“Sounds pretty boring to me,” he said. “Aside from not playing baseball, what other kinds of things can’t Jewish kids do on the Sabbath?”
Even though I knew it wouldn’t sate his appetite, I pushed a second carrot his way.
“It’s not just the children, Jeremy. Adults observe the Sabbath as well. For the most part, they don’t drive cars, travel or go shopping, and a lot of families don’t use electric or any electrical devices.”
Jeremy chomped on the carrot as if he were a horse. “You mean no TV or computers?
“That’s right. No cell phones either. And close your mouth while you’re eating, young man.”
“Oh, sorry, Grandma.” Jeremy swallowed quickly and then ran the back of his hand across his mouth before continuing. “Is keeping the Sabbath punishment for all the things they might have done wrong during the week or is it some kind of tradition?”
“No, it’s not a punishment,” I replied. “But it’s not just a tradition either. Most people think of traditions as habits, things they do almost automatically … like going shopping on the day after Thanksgiving or wearing your team’s color when you go to a football or basketball game. Observing the Sabbath is much more than tradition. It’s a way of life.”
Jeremy shook his head in confusion. “But, if it’s not punishment or tradition, why do they do it?”
“Because God told them to do it.”
Jeremy furrowed his brow. “He did? When?”
I knew that Jeremy had studied the Ten Commandments in Sunday school but I wasn’t sure how much he had retained. “When He gave Moses the Ten Commandments.”
Jeremy’s face lit up. “Oh, yeah. One of the commandments says to remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day; right?”
Both of Jeremy’s parents worked and although they took Jeremy to church every Sunday, they seldom made time to discuss the weekly readings or read the Bible with him. That was a job that fell to me – one that I enjoyed doing. Many a night when Jeremy’s parents were out for the evening, Jeremy and I would curl up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and watch classic old movies like “The Robe” or “The Trouble with Angels.” We had watched “The Ten Commandments” the previous week. Maybe that was what sparked his memory. Even if it wasn’t, it was time to give him something more to think about.
“That’s right, Jeremy, and Exodus 20 tells us even more. It says, ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’”
“No work, at all?” asked Jeremy.
“None,” I replied.
While tracing the pattern on the countertop with his finger, Jeremy asked, “So how does it work? I mean, what is a typical Sabbath day like?”
Setting my work aside, I wiped my hands on my apron and sat down on the counter stool next to my grandson.
“Well, on Friday morning, the mother cleans the house, prepares a big meal and sets the dinner table with her best linen tablecloth, her finest china and her heirloom silver. The father leaves work early in order to be home in time for when the Sabbath begins at sunset. When the whole family is together, two special candles are lit, and the mother recites a blessing. Then all the family members go to their synagogue for a short religious service.”
“What’s a sy-na-gogue?” Jeremy said the word slowly as if savoring every syllable.
“It’s like a church except instead of just being a house of worship like most other churches, synagogues are places where Jewish people go to study Jewish doctrine.”
“Do they have to stay in this synagogue all night?”
“No,” I replied. “After the service, the family goes back home to eat the meal the mother prepared earlier in the day. Once everyone is seated at the table, the father says Kiddush — that’s a prayer before eating — and the meal is served.”
“What do they eat?”
“Something that has been slow cooked, like a brisket or maybe some chicken soup. There’s usually some roasted vegetables, a noodle dish called kugel and one or two loaves of breaded sweet bread called callah. There’s almost always some kind of gooey desert like double chocolate cake or apple torte.”
“Cool – maybe this whole Sabbath thing isn’t so bad after all. What happens after dinner?”
Confident that I had my grandson’s full attention, I continued. “Depending how late it is, the family either sits around and talks or studies the Torah.”
“What’s the Torah?”
I was pleased that Jeremy was asking so many questions because I believe that religious intolerance is based largely on ignorance. If Jeremy was asking questions, that meant he was open to new learning, especially learning about another’s faith. Learning about someone else’s faith is the first step in understanding that person and understanding invariably leads to acceptance. This was the perfect opportunity to broaden my grandson’s education. “The word Torah means teaching or law and the Torah is Judaism’s most important text. It is composed of the five books of Moses and contains the 613 commandments known as the Mitzvoth as well as the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses.”
Jeremy was silent for a moment. Scratching his head, he gazed intently into my eyes. “Jesus was Jewish, wasn’t He?”
“Yes.” I began to worry that my explanation of the Torah might have been over my grandson’s head but it was too late to take it back.
“Did Jesus have to study the Torah and keep the Sabbath?”
“Of course. And much of what Jesus taught His followers was based on the laws written in the Torah. He may not have observed all of the Jewish laws. In fact, He got into a lot of trouble because the Jewish high priests thought He broke a lot of the Mosaic laws, but He always observed the Lord’s Sabbath with the people of Judah throughout His life. Even just before He died.”
“So, if we are Christian and love and follow Jesus, why don’t we keep the Sabbath, Grandma?”
I laughed because I realized that Jeremy not only understood what I was teaching him, he was trying to figure out how it fit into his life. “Well, a lot of Christians do but instead of setting Saturday aside like the Jewish people, they observe the Sabbath on Sunday. When I was your age, my family and I always spent the day with God. Of course, things were different then. We didn’t have cell phones or computers to distract us, and all the stores were closed on Sunday so there really wasn’t any place to go except church and home. My mother would put a roast in the oven early in the morning, our whole family would go to church together. After church, my father would ask us questions about the service. If we answered the questions correctly, we got an extra serving of dessert at dinner. If the weather was nice, we would all go for a walk after dinner; if it was stormy, we might play a board game. But we always made time to read the Scriptures. My father always told us it was important to remember that Sunday was the Lord’s Day and because God had given us so many gifts, the least we could do was set aside one day a week to thank Him.”
“Seriously? No TV or anything?”
“Yes, seriously. In fact, I was 12 years old before my parents bought their first television.”
Jeremy reached out and touched my hand. “Wow, Grandma … how old are you?”
“Old enough to know that you probably have homework to do, young man. So, how about you get started on it?”
“OK,” said Jeremy as he rose from the counter stool. “But may I ask just one more question?”
Trying to act frustrated, I went back to working on the dinner salad. “All right, Jeremy, just one more but then you’re off to your homework.”
“I know we’re not Jewish or anything, but do you think God would mind if we tried observing the Sabbath this Sunday? Like after we got home from church, maybe we could not turn on the TV or any other electronics and just read the Bible or something?”
I smiled. “We’d have to ask your mom and dad but, no, Jeremy. I don’t think God would mind. In fact, I think it might make Him very happy.”
Margaret M. Nava is a freelance writer in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
1. Do you observe the Sabbath or take other time in your week for rest and spiritual reflection?
2. Do you have a Jewish friend who observes the Sabbath? If so, how is your view of Sabbath observance different or similar to your friend’s view?