Shabbos is Jewish Mindfulness is Spirituality is Healing


Every recovery program I’ve seen suggests that spirituality is a good wellness tool that’s not for everyone.  Any connection, valid to the believer, to a comforting reality greater than oneself is a way to talk back to feelings of despair, hopelessness, trauma and emotional distress.

The Sabbath (Shabbos or ShaBAT in Hebrew) is the essence of Jewish spirituality, a day of spiritual rest and healing, mindfulness, being in the moment.. Regular observance gives the week a clear-cut end, break, and beginning. A day each week devoted to spiritual renewal can help a person achieve and maintain serenity and emotional balance..

In Judaism, what you DO to make the day special matters more than what you believe.

In communities that enabled me to observe a traditional Jewish Sabbath every week,  I felt, as H.N. Bialik’s poem says, “the Sabbath Queen was descending accompanied by angels from on high.”  An experience like that makes total despair and uninterrupted distress impossible, but it’s a community experience that takes a community to create.

Even my current watered down, Americanized Shabbos provides an automatic break in my isolation and workaholism.   Left unchecked, they lead to serious distress and despair.. The more connected to my spiritual tradition the day is, the more balanced — less alone, alienated, and overwhelmed — I feel.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Judaism’s greatest modern mystic philosopher, said the Jewish Sabbath is sacred time, a day each week devoted to being, not doing, connecting, not getting, the day God rested after six days of creation in the Book of Genesis.  He commanded us to do the same in our own lives on the seventh day of every week.

The sacred Sabbath day is walled off from ordinary time by special prayers and rituals at each end.

Sabbath begins with candle lighting sundown Friday
Sabbath begins with candle lighting sundown Friday

In between, the Jewish Sabbath laws, customs, and tradition fill 24-plus hours, from sundown Friday to early Saturday night, with special rituals, practices, and restrictions to remind you that this is the holy day of the week, to rest from doing and creating.

Margaret Fletcher, who teaches mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality at the Concord (NH) Hospital, would accept this as a Jewish form of mindfulness.  I know from the way she grasped, right off, with no background in Judaism, the thinking behind obscure Sabbath laws most Jews don’t understand.

Margaret Fletcher
Margaret Fletcher

Margaret says mindfulness is thinking about everything you do, doing it with intention, and giving it a higher significance than just the deed itself.  Following the Jewish dietary laws is intentional, mindful eating.  Shabbos is mindful being and connecting with an unbroken tradition back to Moses on Mount Sinai, and every Jew living or dead.

You have to do ordinary things with intention to observe the Sabbath laws:  cook all your meals before sundown Friday because you can’t light the stove on Shabbos; decide which lights to leave on or off for the whole 24 hours.  Electric appliances involve kindling fire, expressly forbidden in the Bible and Talmud, back when kindling fire was work.  But today, these work-saving devices are still about doing and creating on the seventh day.

People make exceptions.  Orthodox doctors usually carry beepers because preserving health and safety trumps all Sabbath laws.  Secular Jews, like me and most of us, try to create a day where the world feels different — the people, your body and soul – holier and more special than the other six days.

Modernity creates obstacles to Sabbath holiness.  So many conveniences, like cars in the suburbs, are necessities.    You have to violate the law against driving on Shabbos to go to synagogue and pray.  Most suburban orthodox rabbis have told their congregations that the commandment to pray as a community is more important than the law against driving.

The Hebrew/Yiddish word for a Sabbath observer is shomer shabbos, “guardian of Sabbath,” one who guards the sacred time from the intrusions and distractions of modernity.  Shomer is the same word as a soldier who guards the gates of a fort.

At summer camps with total immersion Jewish education programs, we can make Shabbos really different and holy, the focus of the week, even for secular, suburban American kids.  I went to one as a kid, worked at several, and directed one in the early ‘70’s.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

When Rabbi Heschel said, “If the whole world observed the Sabbath two weeks in a row, it would trigger the coming of the Messiah,” he was talking about something like this, not an hour in the synagogue on Friday night.

The kids, with their group leaders and teachers, start preparing for next Shabbos as soon as the week begins.  There are three worship services, and a different group of kids creates each one.  They learn the songs and dances that will be the highlight of the Friday night celebration.  The dining hall must be decorated, so campers work on that in arts and crafts. They also do projects unrelated to Judaism.

In their daily discussion groups, they study a Jewish theme of the week.

On Friday afternoon, everybody picks up the grounds, cleans their cabins and themselves.  Then they dress all in white.  At the proper time, they process in a dignified way down to Sabbath Eve services, singing a spiritual as they walk.  The service encourages all the community to participate, not be a passive audience.

After a special supper, the dining hall erupts in spirited singing and dancing.

Saturday, we sleep a little later, and wander to a buffet breakfast at our own speed.  But we must all be at Sabbath morning services on time.  Saturday afternoon, all the activity venues are open, and kids go where they want, not in groups on a schedule, like the other six days. I pitched for the senior staff against the counselors on Saturday afternoons, and would have won more, but the rabbis kept falling down under fly balls in the outfield.

Havdalah candle, spice box, and wine
Havdalah candle, spice box, and wine

Havdalah, the Hebrew word for separation, is a beautiful ceremony that ends the Sabbath and begins the ordinary week. It takes 10 minutes unless you embellish it with singing and dancing, and strikes all five senses.

When the special Havdahah candle is doused in the wine, Havdalah and the Sabbath end.  We say,  “Praise God who differentiates between holy and ordinary,” and wish one another Shavuah Tov, a good week.

Former campers remember Shabbat most..  It’s the one time in their secular, suburban lives many Jewish kids experience true Sabbath holiness.

You can’t have holy without the ordinary.



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.