We learn in the Talmud that Mi she-tarach b’erev Shabbat yochal b’shabbat (B. Avodah Zara 3a): one who works hard on the eve of Shabbat will eat on Shabbat. Surely the rabbis are thinking of the person who spends all day Friday (and perhaps even Thursday) shopping and chopping, boiling and baking, sweeping and scrubbing. And so I was a bit troubled when I realized that I hardly ever engage in any of these activities, especially not at the end of the week. Am I failing to do my part to prepare myself and my home for Shabbat?
I think about how I spend my Thursdays and Fridays — though in truth I should not start there. The rabbis teach that our whole week should be oriented towards Shabbat. Thus we precede the psalm for each day by counting that day with reference to the Sabbath: Today is the first day of the Sabbath; today is the second day of the Sabbath, etc. As the gabbait of a minyan, I relate very much to this system of enumeration. Each week I take stock of how many days I have left to assign all the aliyot and the davening for the upcoming Shabbat. On Sunday, when the week is still young, I send out an email to all of our regular leyners asking them to email me if they’d like to read an aliyah. I generally try to make these emails humorous so that people actually take the time to open and read my message. Recent examples include the following:
Miketz (the Harry Potter theme):
The Prisoner of Egyptkaban interprets a royal dream!
Joseph is appointed to the position of half-blood prince!
The goblet of divination disapparates!
Come leyn at Kedem — because Miketz is not for muggles.
Vayigash (the dramatic effect):
Genesis 45:1: “Joseph could no longer control himself before his
attendants. He cried out, ‘I am Joseph! Are there any aliyot still
Very few people respond to these messages, and so by Tuesday (three days of the Sabbath) I follow up with personal emails, trying not to target the same people too many weeks in a row. (Face it, I tell myself – a gabbai is inevitably a nudge.) By Wednesday, it is time to make phone calls. Then on Thursday, I begin learning all the aliyot that are still unassigned. I generally learn my leyning while walking, and so on Thursdays and Fridays I can always be found with a folded-up Xerox from a tikun either in my coat pocket or in my hand. At this point, I begin to truly inhabit the parsha; inevitably, the wheels of my brain begin cranking out rudimentary ideas for divrei Torah. On Thursday nights I am often up long past midnight hacking away at the keyboard, trying to tease apart a problem or question I have with the text – generally with one of the aliyot I am leyning. I always feel a sense of time pressure even if I have no context for which I am preparing to speak. Shabbat is my deadline – by the time the sun sets, the d’var Torah has to be written, or else it will spoil like manna that is stored past the day it falls. Still, most weeks I don’t write anything at all; I mourn the passing of full many a parsha born to blush undrashed.
By Thursday, too, I send out the weekly email with the minyan announcements. I make sure we have someone to set up chairs, someone to arrange for heating in the building where we daven, and someone to buy and bring Kiddush. (Fortunately, I have two co-gabbaim, who shoulder most of these burdens.) As the Shabbat countdown kicks in, I call the leyners to confirm their aliyot, and I scramble to find last-minute daveners.
On Friday morning, I often spend the morning in my office. Although Friday is technically a weekend day, I generally have a significant manuscript backlog, and I try to take advantage of the empty office to do any editing that needs to be done in a concentrated four-hour chunk. By the time I descend from my third-floor turret, Emek Refaim is already beginning to close down. The last-minute shoppers are lugging heavy bags of cucumbers, chumus, and rectangular loaves of white bread. The workers in the supermarket are bringing in the fruit and vegetables from outside and rolling up the store awnings. After three o’clock on a Friday, it is impossible to buy anything in the entire German colony except a newspaper or a cup of Aroma coffee. I follow the exhausted shoppers home, carrying nothing with me except a manuscript and a computer disk-on-key.
During these short winter shabbatot, I do not have much time at home on Friday afternoons. I throw down my papers, turn off all the lights but one, set my alarm clock, and run out the door with a bathing suit and a change of clothes. It is time for my favorite moment of the week: swimming into Shabbat. The rabbis say that Jerusalem received nine of the ten measures of beauty in the world. I am convinced that one of those nine is the Jerusalem municipal pool, an Olympic-sized swimming pool enclosed in a glass dome with a skylight open to the heavens. I throw on my bathing suit and jump in, watching as the sun around me slowly sinks lower in the sky. If I am sufficiently prepared, I review my leyning in my head while swimming as many laps as I can fit in before the Shabbat siren goes off and the lifeguard blows his whistle. Then I lift my wet body out from the water, jump in the shower, and put on my Shabbat skirt for the walk home.
It is Shabbat by the time I get back, and I have neither cooked nor cleaned. But no matter. Either I am invited to someone’s home, or else I eat pita and chumus from the makolet around the corner while singing up a storm to the angels in my otherwise empty apartment. I trust that they will come in spite of the books all over my desk, the newspapers on my table, and the occasional dirty tupperware still waiting patiently in the sink. My apartment is neither sparkling clean nor redolent with the smell of home-cooked chicken soup, but my soul feels ready. I hum a new melody for L’cha Dodi, put on my favorite warm pajamas, and prepare to greet Shabbat.