Shabbat Means We Belong

I remember being seven years old and walking into my grandparents’ apartment in San Diego. I remember the way the sunlight washed over their small kitchen table. I remember the framed picture of my sister and me on the wall, the way the warm Southern California air always wafted in through their screen door, and the books and photo albums that they kept by the living room rocking chair. I remember playing cards with my grandpa and going into the tiny, but well-appointed, kitchen with my grandma.

What I don’t remember is talking about their traditions and holidays. It didn’t come up until I reached my teens, and I had the curiosity to ask them on my own about their Jewish heritage. But during my childhood and around my parents, it wasn’t discussed.

For reasons known only to him, my dad walked away from the Orthodox Judaism he’d grown up with at the age of 18. The first time I attended a cousin’s bat mitzvah, I was 20 years old, and I’d had to hunt down the invitation.

It felt a little bit like coming home—but to perfect strangers.

I remember walking into the big, open synagogue that night. The hauntingly beautiful sound of ancient liturgy gave me goosebumps. The piles of delicious food I tried for the first time drew me in. And so did the fact that all these people were laughing and talking loudly, like they belonged together. These relatives I’d been estranged from all had dark, curly hair, just like me. On the outside, we looked the same; but on the inside, I still felt out of place. It’s strange to say that it felt a little bit like coming home—but to perfect strangers.

A Rest that Sets Us Apart

There’s a comfort and belonging in Jewish tradition, knowing that even perfect strangers on the other side of the world are doing what you’re doing. I believe that’s what our traditions were meant to do—to anchor us to home, to God, and to each other. Shabbat is a great example of this, built into our schedules to do weekly. When God originally commanded us to keep the Shabbat, He was setting us apart for Himself. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work” (Exodus 20:8–10). A few chapters later, God said, “Let the land be renewed and lie uncultivated during the seventh year. Then let the poor among you harvest whatever grows on its own” (Exodus 23:11).

While the nations around us toiled seven days a week, we were called to follow the example set by God, to dedicate a whole day to unity with Him and with each other. This was a sign of our covenantal relationship with Him—our belonging. What’s more, we were told to give our land a rest. In this way, He united our people by creating an inherent way for the poor to be taken care of.

Yet in our current “more is better” culture, weekends have just become an excuse to do more work. We multitask, catch up on emails, (try to) keep our houses clean and eat healthy, and, if you’re a parent like me, take care of little humans. We burn the candle at both ends, and it’s starting to show: mental health issues, loneliness, and health concerns are on the rise. We work, work, work, and we think, God wants me to be productive, He’ll understand. We lay aside the fiction novel, the board game, or the nature walk until we’re all “done” with work. But the problem is, we’re never done—the work keeps coming. There will always be more to do.

Noticing Shabbat Everywhere

I know the feeling of never-ending piles of work—I’m an educator, chef, writer, mother, and wife. But I also love to get lost in a good book. The guilt of relaxing weighed heavy on me. Then, a few years ago, I kept coming across the theme of Shabbat in various pieces of literature. I knew God was telling me something.

In the All of a Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, which tells the story of a Jewish family living in New York over a hundred years ago, I saw Shabbat highlighted. It was the best meal of the week. The mother put extra thought and care into the Friday night meal she prepared. It might sound silly, but this was the first exposure I had to the idea of Shabbat as a celebration.

Then a friend gave me a copy of a book on the Jewish holidays, and it even went so far as to say Shabbat can be a healing practice for families by dedicating 24 hours each week to God and to each other.

We don’t exist to preserve Shabbat, but Shabbat exists to preserve us.

The third mention of Shabbat came when I was reading Scripture itself. I already knew from Exodus that it was a command, but as a Jewish believer in Yeshua, I also saw how he kept and treasured the day. When I read his words, “Shabbat was made for man, and not man for Shabbat” (Mark 2:27), I paused. He was demonstrating something so vital—that we don’t exist to preserve Shabbat, but Shabbat exists to preserve us. And I wondered, Why haven’t I ever really participated in it?

The clincher came when my children started asking me more about my family. I wanted to give them a piece of me, a piece of my history, even if we would have to learn it for the first time together.

Observing Shabbat with My Family

As we incorporated Shabbat into our lives, I began to understand why so many people work straight through the weekend, effectively ignoring the day of rest. We’ve conditioned ourselves to fill our weekends with plans and productivity so well that the idea of saying, “No,” and taking a deep breath instead can feel foreign. I hoped a few other friends might join me in my journey to reclaim Shabbat, but instead, I was met with, “Oh, that’s too hard, I can’t add one more thing to my list.” The irony that Shabbat could be too much work saddened me, but it affirmed the lie that so many of us believe (and that I myself have battled): that resting is unproductive.

That’s why I started small. I knew I wanted a few key elements to be part of my Shabbat: a clean, organized house; dimly glowing lights; the beautifully significant candles; and a special, crowd-pleasing dinner. I also knew that I wanted to take the time to pray over my kids.

Don’t get me wrong—all of our Shabbat dinners have been very “human.” Yet I remember one that was even more so than the rest. There had been a windstorm earlier that day, and as I was cooking dinner, a neighbor came knocking on my door. I didn’t know this particular neighbor very well, but for some reason, he remembered my name. When he came over hollering with my trash can in his hands (it had blown away earlier), I was so distracted that I let the sauce bubble over. A few minutes later, after I’d wiped up the wayward sauce and plated the food, one of the kids came to tell me, “Mom, the chickens escaped!” (Yes, I have chickens.) I went to go catch them and put them safely back in their coop.

Then, when we were finally all at the table, blessings prayed and candles lit, someone spilled their drink, and another someone fell out of their chair onto the floor. If it isn’t the chickens bringing comedy into my life, it’s the children. For a moment, I may have let my shoulders slump at the table. I may have let defeat sit with me. I may have even lent an ear to that temptation that says, “Why do this Shabbat thing anyway?”

The Gift of Rest and Belonging

But then I realized that the chaos of my home was a perfect illustration of our imperfect rest. Even if your life’s chaos doesn’t include children (or chickens), I’m sure you understand: our world is broken and our work is never done. But part of being Jewish is looking forward to when that won’t always be true.

Shabbat has always been about faith.

This day is a little glimpse, a shadow of the true rest and unity that we will one day have with God and with each other. He is the source of shalom and the only One who can give us true rest and peace with one another. Shabbat has always been about faith: faith that the world will keep turning even though I stop to rest; faith that though this rest is imperfect, more is coming; and faith that He alone can hold us together, though many are the forces in this world that try to tear us apart.

Shabbat is a gift from Him. The gift is that He meets us in it, in the practicing and in the humanness. It’s an invitation for us to belong—at a messy table, with our family and friends, and with the God who knew we needed the rest. We can rest in that belonging. Whenever we begin to explore our Jewish identity, no matter how observant we are (or aren’t), the Shabbat table is a place to share the three things we Jews love most—faith, family, and food—and to know we’re home.