A Shabbat Experience That Reshaped My Week & My Life

By Leslie Cook

I’d like to tell you about the Shabbat experience I enjoyed for ten years when I lived in West Rogers Park.

Someone told me once that in an Orthodox community Shabbat shapes the entire week. From Saturday evening after Havdalah until midweek, you’re re-engaging with regular time, memories of the last Shabbat fading but still there. By midweek, you begin to prepare for the upcoming Shabbat with house cleaning, menu planning, shopping, preparing food, and finally setting up the table. And then Shabbat begins as the candles are lit, and time is suspended for twenty-six hours. While the week is a time for creation, Shabbat is a time for appreciation. The beauty of this idea enacted weekly in space and time transformed my life.

My own thought about the day was that in doing all that ahead of Shabbat, cleaning, shopping, cooking, setting my table, putting on special clothes to honor the day . . . I created a space in time for myself in which I could sit back with friends and be nurtured. Of course I had done the work, but as another teacher said to me once, religion is the language of “as if.” In the fictional space we all created in that community, the prepared table gleamed before me, and I could sit and enjoy the evening as a guest among guests.

But I wasn’t the only one doing that. Everyone in my community was engaged in the same effort. If my windows were open on a Shabbat evening, I could hear Shabbat songs from all three floors of the building next to me, and I’m sure they could hear ours. Every person at every table was a guest at the table, thanks to planning and preparation toward a common goal during the week. That goal was a beautiful Shabbat – in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “a palace in time.”

One of the things I loved about Shabbat in West Rogers Park was the bustle in the kosher stores around Devon Avenue in the hours before Shabbat. Whether on the streets shopping on Friday or walking to and from one of the more than twenty synagogues in walking distance, friends were likely to run into each other and invite each other to a Shabbat meal. It didn’t matter which synagogue a person attended – or if they didn’t attend at all. Everyone was a welcome addition to someone’s Shabbat table.

I’ve been in McHenry County now for almost twenty years. I miss those wonderful Shabbat evening dinners and midday meals after shul with friends. So when Rabbi Tom said he’d like to encourage people to celebrate Shabbat in their homes with friends and hoped to help with and join in those celebrations, I jumped at the opportunity to recreate in some way those West Rogers Park evenings in my home. Of course they won’t be the same as in that other community. McHenry County is very different from West Rogers Park. Shared Shabbat meals here will take on their own style and character. But the important things will be the same. I will share good food, laughter, song, and Torah with my friends.

Maybe you have different memories or a different vision of Shabbat at home that you would like to share with others – or maybe you would like to create something very different. We are fortunate to have a rabbi who is willing to work with each of us where we are to create something special for our ourselves, our families, and our friends wherever we are on the path of our Jewish lives.

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