For our first Shabbat table service at the JCC, we set up the long tables in a welcoming, open square, spread them with white cloths, and set each table with candlesticks, bottles of wine, and challot. In our shortened Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming of Shabbat) and Ma’ariv (evening service), we invoked the mystical teachings of Reb Nachman of Breslov, who taught that “there are times when the truest act of giving is to receive, when the truest form of doing is not to do at all.” While each day of the week serves as a unique spiritual channel for bringing sustenance to the world, on Shabbat all spiritual channels, including Shabbat’s, are receiving. Shabbat’s special gift is to model the open channel, the tzinor (pipeline) through which spiritual bounty pours when we let go of our doingness.
We spoke of how trajectory of Shabbat is like a dance, with each service, each meal, embodying an essential movement. If we were to spend the whole 26 hours of Shabbat together, we might find ourselves dancing through stages something like this:
On Shabbat evening, filled with the songs of kabbalat Shabbat and the delicious tastes and smells of first meal, we prune away the shells that grow around us during the weekdays, numbing us to the fullness of experience. The word z’mirah, or song of praise, referring to the many songs we sing around the Shabbos table, comes from the same root as l’zamer, to prune. Through our singing, we prune away the k’lipot (shells) that disguise our essential inner light much of the time. We open all portals, washing away the sludge of the week with prayer and dance and song, thus creating open channels for the flow of blessing. We move from the world of assiyah, of physical action, into the world of yetzirah emotion, flow, foundation.
On Shabbat morning, through more joyful singing, prayer, and contemplation we expand the inner channels, growing our capacity for receiving, increasing light and air and space. Into this expanded space pours Torah, with her many levels of resonance—the Torah written in the scrolls, expressed in our lives, conveyed directly to us through flashes of inner chochmah (wisdom). We eat the second meal, savoring each bite. Ah, that first crusty, moist bit of challah, that sip of pungent, sweet wine, dancing us from yetzirah toward b’riah, the world of breath, of Mind, the great seeds of intention manifest through all the material realms.
By minchah, the afternoon service, and the third meal of Shabbat, we’ve expanded the inner channels and peeled back the outer layers so that boundaries begin to dissolve. We float in the deep and quiet ocean of Oneness. It is at this time of day, especially during the summer months, that we might study Pirke Avot, the wisdom of the ancestors, stretching the afternoon into a long reverie, a meditation on faith and life and love. A light spirit wind rises, lifting us from b’riah toward atzilut, a whiff of the nothing-beyond-worlds, the bliss that is full and empty at the same time.
Finally, with wistfulness and hope, we notice the appearance of three stars and perform the havdalah (separation) ceremony of the braided candle, stepping through the threshold that distinguishes the holy spaciousness of Shabbat from the everyday-ness of the week to come, moving back “down” the worlds toward the embodied plane of action. But the havdalah candle, a multi-wick braid of wax, reminds us of how intimately what we call the “holy” and the “mundane” are wound together. As the candle burns, the strands melt together, becoming one. So too, we gently reconfigure ourselves, allowing the stretched and expanded and cleansed parts of ourselves to condense within a new skin, a baby skin. Yet we are forever changed. The parts don’t fit together as they did before. Perhaps there’s a bit more space between them, a bit more room for flow. Flowers and fruit grow more fragrant and sweet, and new branches sprout, because of the pruning. The worlds mix in us, and we’ve taken a small step toward Gan Eden, with the Tree of Life at its center.
We celebrate this newness with a fourth meal, a melaveh malkah, accompanying the Queen on her way, far into the night, watching the spot on the horizon into which She seems to disappear and from which she will emerge without fail, glowing with the joy of return, next Friday evening.
- Rabbi Diane Elliot, RSMT