As far as longevity of prayers goes, the Amidah is about as old as it gets. Maybe there is something older in Hindu liturgy but it’s probably nowhere as central as the Amidah is to Judaism. Religious texts have been around since the early pyramids in Egypt (about 5,000 years ago), but those are ancient history. The Amidah, according to Jewish tradition, has been in continuous use since shortly after Ezra led the return from the Babylonian exile almost 2500 years ago. There is no concrete proof that this is actually the case, but there is no strong reason to doubt it either. It is the core of Jewish prayer. The Shema and other Biblical passages are older, but they are not really prayer as much as recital. The Amidah, more than anything else, is the Jewish formula for addressing God on a personal level. Wherever they ended up, the Jews have carried it with them as kind of national pledge - a glue that binds a people as scattered as the water of many rivers when they enter the ocean.
There are four different versions of the Amidah for Shabbat – evening, morning, additional morning service, and afternoon. As if that was enough, for each of these, there are slightly different versions depending on one’s custom (Ashkenazi, Sefaradi, Hasidic, etc.). Many versions of the evening and morning Amidah contain the following insert into the middle blessing: ‘You sanctified the seventh day in Your name, the purpose of the creation of the heaven and the earth. And You blessed it above all days, and sanctified it above all times…’ Following this are the verses from the Torah testifying to God resting on the seventh day and blessing and sanctifying it. Next comes a paragraph declaring that those who keep Shabbat will rejoice in God’s kingdom, which concludes with the statement: ‘You called it the most desirable of days, a remembrance of the act of creation.’
This association of Shabbat with creation comes up quite a bit in Shabbat prayer. Shabbat seems to have this aura of somehow being the point of everything, as if all of the rest of creation was just a warm-up for the grand finale. The bottom line, though, is that it is just another day. It’s one day out of the seven day week which itself is an artificial construct of the Biblical calendar. How does one day out of the week serve as a remembrance of the act of creation? How is one day more desirable than any other? How is it the purpose of creation? Finally, how can Shabbat maintain its significance in the face of modern understandings of time and creation and the diminished role of God in everything?
First off, we have to establish some ground rules. The Biblical view of creation was that it did take place over the course of six days. Until fairly recently there was no reason to believe otherwise. Of course, there was nothing supporting this view either, but as long as all answers were equally questionable why shouldn’t the version of the Bible be the accepted truth? So there you have it – God created everything in the first six days and rested on the seventh. Did God really need to rest on the seventh day? The Jewish answer is an emphatic ‘no’, but He did anyway. Why did He rest if He didn’t need to? In order that Shabbat, the day of rest, could receive God’s blessing and holiness, which in turn could be imparted to all those who rest on the Shabbat.
This tradition is about as old as they come in Judaism. The commandment of Shabbat is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The two variant readings of the Ten Commandments have significantly different reasons for resting on Shabbat and what appear to be two completely different methods of observation. Exodus 20:8-11 it gives the classic reason of ‘Remember the seventh day in its holiness…In six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that was in them and He rested on the seventh day, therefore He blessed the Shabbat and sanctified it’. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, we find: ‘Keep (observe the restrictions) the Shabbat day in its holiness as Hashem commanded you...and remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Hashem your God took you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Hashem your God commanded you to do Shabbat day’.
Is the commandment to ‘remember’ or to ‘keep’ (observe, do)? Is it because God rested from creating that we should rest, or is it because we were slaves (with presumably no opportunity to rest) and God removed us from servitude and gave us freedom? It is almost like there are two completely different commandments. The rabbinic understanding of Shabbat is vast, with no less than 39 different categories of labor that cannot be performed on Shabbat and countless further restrictions built upon these 39. There are so many rabbinic details and so many things that cannot be done or have to be done that it is quite easy to forget that it’s all about holiness and blessing. It seems that the ‘observe’ version won out in the end while the ‘remember’ version was shunted to the side. We do ‘remember’ Shabbat in the recital of the Kiddush - the sanctification over wine or grape juice on Friday evening - but after that it’s all about doing and observing restrictions.
Perhaps this is why these lines come up in the Amidah. It’s too easy to miss the holiness with all the restrictions. It’s really about remembering creation – the other stuff is just to ensure that the day won’t be spent doing regular weekday activities. You are no longer slaves. You’ve come out of that for a reason – so that you can concentrate on what’s really important. It is only by setting aside one day every week that you have any hope of understanding and appreciating the goodness of this world and what it means to be a part of creation.
But the question remains: what does this one day out of seven have to do with remembering creation? What if we can no longer accept the Biblical version of things with God working six days and then taking a day off? Is Shabbat to be relegated to a fate of being just one more ancient custom following ancient rules that has no relevant inner message?
The answer, perhaps, lies in reinterpretation, in updating the literal meaning of the verses to some more palatable version. One day, seven days – it’s all just a way of counting the time passing. The difference comes when we bring God into the picture, which puts a divine agenda on creation. It didn’t just happen. It happened with a plan. According to the Torah, creation was not the goal but a means to an end. The end was to experience the holiness and the blessing. We human beings have to work if we are to survive. But work and survival are also just means to an end. That end is to imbibe some of that holiness and blessing. If we don’t set aside one day, we’ll just work ourselves to death. Even if we don’t need to work, if we don’t set aside one day, we’ll just kill the time. That day has to be dedicated, observed, and kept. It has to be remembered and treasured as the most desirable of days. It has to be the purpose of everything.
Judaism picks Shabbat as that day. Modern people may no longer be able to accept that creation took place over six days and that God rested on Saturday. But modern people can still accept that creation had a plan. That plan needed a day set aside, a day to remember that creation was a planned act of God. This simple fact is all too easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the post-creation world. If we don’t dwell on it, it just drifts away unnoticed and unmissed. But without it, we also drift away into the bottomless pit of meaninglessness. Creation is too great a thing to ignore. It is a continuous miracle unfolding right under our noses, but we’re too busy to pay attention to it. What better way to find holiness and blessing than to recognize the miracle of creation?
The most practical advice for anyone who wants to experience Shabbat is to just do it. Find out some basics about how it’s done (it’s available all over the Internet) and take the plunge. It may take a while to find a workable solution to the numerous problems that come up with work, driving, cooking, television, etc., but everybody manages to find a way. It may require joining an observant Jewish community as a social impetus to keep up the practice. Some people may find that they can only pull it off once a month, with some sort of get together with like-minded fellow seekers. It won’t always be easy. There will be conflicts and inconveniences and questions like, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ But in the end, the reward is simply irreplaceable. If done right, it can put a completely new spin on life.
Restrictions are necessary to keep us in line. There are just too many things going on in life that prevent us from dedicating time to things that are essential for life but not necessary for survival and comfort. At one point, the distractions revolved around those 39 forms of work. But there is one distraction in today’s world that trumps all others, and, if left unchecked, will completely swamp us out of any contact with any ultimate meaning and purpose in life. It’s not drugs or booze, though those can be pretty distracting. It’s not making money or watching TV, though they can also get in the way. It’s the gadgets. It’s those high tech gadgets that are infiltrating our lives in so many ways that we can no longer imagine life without them. They provide so many benefits and enable us to do so many things, that we have no desire or compelling reason to ditch them. But they are a distraction. It is pretty tough to contemplate the holiness of creation on a smartphone. It is downright impossible if the mind is constantly ready to be distracted by the next message or interruption. We need restrictions. The unrestricted life is not worth living. Turn the damn thing off for 24 hours and see if life comes to a standstill. If it doesn’t, try it again. If it does, it’s time to rethink priorities.
As important as the restrictions are, it is crucial to recognize that they are a means to an end. Without the end goal of remembering the act of creation and becoming aware of its holiness, the blessings of Shabbat may never be realized. Shabbat may even become a burden. The purpose of creation was to reveal the presence of God in all creation. The meaning of life is to be an essential part of that holiness. If you are genuinely looking for meaning in life, and find yourself frustrated by one blind alley after another, you might find what you’ve be seeking in contemplating the act of creation.
When really was the last time you actually thought deeply about creation? Did you ever do it? When did you last wonder about the simple fact that everything exists? Something as basic and as commonplace as air is nothing less than a deliberate result of the great plan known as creation. When did you last ponder the miracle of life? Even your own mind is a part of creation. Your thoughts are just as real and just as essential as anything else. You create them, but they are also part of the whole. Use any avenue you have available to explore and discover. Use science or poetry, prayer or meditation. Take a hike in the woods or look out over the ocean. Enjoy it with friends or share it with a loved one. Do it religiously or find some path of your own. It is creation and it is your time with God. Remember it, observe it, do it.
Food for Thought
Shabbat is great idea for avoiding the sink hole of meaningless life. But it only works with a pretty strong commitment and a significant change of lifestyle. What happens if one tries it and it doesn’t live up to its billing? What steps should be taken to make sure that it works?
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