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Day of What?

By Lauren Shapiro

When you have young kids, Shabbat is not a day of rest. In fact, it’s often very far from restful.
It starts on Friday night. If we’re hosting dinner, it’s a mad dash to get the food prepared, the kids bathed and the house somewhat un-exploded-looking in time. If we’re going out, then instead of a nice, civilized dinner with other adults, we’re running around preventing children from playing with the candles or bouncing babies on our laps over the soup course.

If we get a babysitter and leave them at home, we often arrive back to find that someone’s vomited, swallowed Lego, or attacked someone else with a plastic sword. It can take a while to settle them down after that, meaning that instead of relaxing into a well-deserved sleep, we collapse into bed with our socks still on.
Then comes Saturday. We’re woken before sunrise by one or more bright-eyed children, full of beans and ready to play. While the rest of the world enjoys a Shabbos lie-in, we face several (early) hours of playing trains and I Spy, eating Oatees and reading Harry Potter. Thank the gracious Lord for coffee!

I am compelled to include an aside at this point, because my husband is nosily reading over my shoulder as I type. Yes, it is true that I am extremely blessed to have a considerate, generous and selfless helpmeet who takes the early shift so I can score some extra shut-eye, but in my defense, I do take the second slot from mid-morning until shul time. There, Warren, are you satisfied? May I please continue with my column now? Thank you, I love you too.

Shul is seldom a peaceful experience for parents of young children. We spend much of the service outside mediating negotiations about whose turn it is to play with the bike/ball/doll, or rescuing thrown items from the upper branches of trees. I don’t remember the last time I completed the Amidah without someone tugging at my skirt. And trying to actually sit down at the post-service brocha and drink a cup of tea while it’s still hot is a joke. (You may laugh now. Especially if you have youngsters and really get it.)

Shabbat afternoons are a happy chaos of play dates, board games and picnics in the garden. We certainly get our money’s worth out of the trampoline. By the time we light the havdallah candle we’re far more tired than we were when we lit the Shabbat candles 25 hours before. But we’ve also spent a precious 16-odd waking hours with our kids, and most of that is real quality time. In that context, who needs rest? (That’s rhetorical; don’t answer.)

In any case, the notion of Shabbat as a day of rest is grossly misleading. It’s a consequence of translation (and perhaps optimism) on the part of modern English speakers. When we think of rest, we think of abstaining from work. In some cases this may be accurate, but the Torah never tells us to refrain from avodah (the classic translation of “work”), but from melacha – specifically the 39 categories of melacha that were involved in the building and running of the mishkan (portable sanctuary) in the wilderness.

Why, you may ask?

Work, in the Shabbat sense, means creative acts; showing our mastery over nature. If even Hashem ceased to create and interfere with nature on the seventh day, so too must we.
If you know what the 39 categories of melacha are, it begins to make more sense. Instead of being preoccupied with making, we can concentrate on enjoying.

Some categories, like sowing, ploughing and reaping, are pretty easy to avoid (unless you’re an avid gardener, in which case there are six other days to indulge your passion). Not many of us spend our Saturdays threshing and winnowing these days anyway.
Then there are the melachot associated with the making of the mishkan’s leather curtains: I dare say very few of us do much skinning and tanning of animals these days and slaughtering really only becomes an issue if we’re plagued by mosquitoes (one word: Tabard).
The ones that affect us most today are categories like kitchen work (think sifting, grinding, kneading, baking), laundering, writing and transporting (carrying) things from one domain to another. There are further sub-categories that derive from the original melachot. Anything that results from the completing of an electrical circuit, for example, falls under the category of “finishing”, or “striking the final hammer blow”. This rules out switching lights and appliances on or off, using cars or electronic equipment (TVs, computers, phones, tablets, etc).
Understanding the melachot means we have to think about our actions, and that’s always a good thing. It seems our sages knew centuries ago what psychologists are propagating today: mindfulness is good for the soul. Perhaps even more important than sticking the kids in front of the TV so we can have a Saturday afternoon nap.
It’s pretty cool that emulating Hashem brings us closer not only to Him, but to our families too. The positive feeling it generates kind of makes me feel closer to myself as well (in an existential kind of way).
Although as young parents we sometimes exit Shabbat equally tired – or more – than we entered it, “resting” from the distractions of the week means more quality time with our kids. So for us Shabbat is seldom a day of rest, but it’s a day of best. Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom. Until next time.

“the notion of Shabbat as a day of rest is grossly misleading. It’s a consequence of translation (and perhaps optimism) of modern English speakers”