There is no doubt the Shabbat Project, which originated in South Africa and made its debut In Ottawa last year, was an amazing experience for those who participated. I have no doubt that this year’s program – October 23-24 – will be equally successful as the community is introducing its challah bake opportunity (October 22) as well as an innovative Havdallah program. I commend the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and specifically Bram Bregman and Stacy Goldstein who have taken the lead on this important venture. As well, I applaud the efforts of all the congregations and constituent agencies that have contributed to the success of the program.
At the same time, a question has to be raised as to the raison d’être of this event in terms of effectuating change in the life styles and habits of members of the Jewish community here and elsewhere. Is the Shabbat Project simply designed to be a feel good community building event, or is there a greater purpose, which is more difficult to achieve, namely shmirat Shabbat (Shabbat observance)?
There is no question that a Shabbat meal and services accompanied by a program are wonderful aspects of Shabbat awareness and appreciation. In effect, our community, as well as numerous others, through these types of activities advances the concept of the zachor element of Shabbat. In other words, the positive manifestations of Shabbat such as candle lighting, challah baking, Kiddush, meals and prayer fulfil the biblical command to remember the Shabbat to sanctify it.
But there is the second command to observe (shamor) the Shabbat, which is referenced by the prohibitions of creative activity (melacha) on this holy day. Do any of our programs concentrate on this aspect of Shabbat? While the beauty of the Shabbat must be emphasized through meals, challah and prayers, the lack of attention to the shamor aspect of Shabbat attenuates the meaning of Shabbat as a day holy to God and to the Jewish people. It is not simply a day off from work.
Having a full meaningful Shabbat project program demands the encompassing of both zachor and shamor, which, realistically, is not generally feasible unless there is a strong commitment made to that effect. The comment by our sages that God said both words at the same time indicates that one without the other is insufficient.
The combination of the two elements of zachor and shamor does not happen overnight, but is an ongoing process that people choose to accept. It takes time, effort and dedication. It means experiencing Shabbat not as a one-time-a-year special program, but as an ongoing once-a-week expectation. The shomer Shabbat individual or family does not perceive the prohibitions of melacha on Shabbat to be cumbersome, but liberating.
I remember when, as a rabbi in Kingston, Ontario, I had invited a scholar-in-residence who claimed he could make my entire congregation shomer Shabbat in the space of a two-hour presentation. The bet was on. At the end of his speech, a committee of people approached me with the desire to take on Sabbath observance. I was dumbfounded. What did he tell them that influenced their decision making?
This scholar told them they do not have to answer their phones on Shabbat. (This was before cellphones and other such devices.) They felt liberated. Of course, the experiment failed before the next Shabbat. Liberation was short-lived.
In reality, the true Shabbat Project takes place over a prolonged period of time and cannot be limited to a single weekend. Our Shabbat Project programs are wonderful openings to true Shabbat experiences. But we cannot simply open the door to full Shabbat observance. There has to be follow-up to this wonderful program we are celebrating this year on Parshat Lech Lecha to bring zachor and shamor together.