Don’t Forget the Sabbath Spice!

A sermon preached at First Church in Boston, December 7, 2014

I am grateful to Neil McGarry for bringing “A Christmas Carol” to life for us this morning. The dialogue between Ebeneezer Scrooge and his nephew Fred captures so much about this season and the struggle within our own hearts.

After all, as Scrooge says, what is Christmas but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a penny richer! When my young daughter asks me “Please, Mommy, don’t skip the commercials” for all kinds of sparkly flashy plastic over-priced toys, it takes incredible restraint for me NOT to say, “Bah! Humbug!”

Don’t tell her that, okay? You see we are trying to teach her critical thinking and moral values. I want her to understand how to be intentional and responsible with money. She is a child privileged enough to have all her basic needs met with additional resources for fun and giving.

The reason that “A Christmas Carol” is such a classic story that continues to be told 169 years after it was first published is that its message reminds us not only about the meaning of Christmas but the value of helping others. It is a tale of reformation. Scrooge has a dramatic change of heart where he recognizes that there is more to life than storing away money like a squirrel busily hoarding acorns for the winter.

As his dead friend Marley says, Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business, charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all my business, the dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, beautifully captures what it means to keep Christmas. More than overspending and overeating, the observance is a good time– a time when we open our hearts to one another and recognize our common humanity.

On Thursday, at the same time as the tree-lighting ceremony on Boston Common, thousands gathered in response to the lack of an indictment in the choke-hold death of Eric Gardner. This comes after other cases of black men and boys being killed by police officers who were not convicted for their actions. Like many Americans, I am sickened by the injustice of our current system. These recent cases throw a bright light on the disparity and racism that has been going on for a long time.  My prayer is that this will lead to a reformation of our justice system and an awakening to the legacy of oppression in our country.

I am not going to assert that there is an easy fix to such grave injustice and such ingrained oppression. However, in order for all of us to face the conditions of our world and work together toward the common good, I believe that we need spiritual grounding.

We cannot create world harmony if we ourselves are spinning out of balance.  It is essential for us to be in dialogue for positive change but we cannot truly listen to another perspective if we ourselves do not make time in our lives for silence.  Now is the time for purposeful action, not manic busyness, if we are to harness our energy in meaningful ways.  That is the message of my sermon this morning.  Why I believe that keeping the Sabbath is a key to a meaningful life and holiday observance.

Have I got a tale for you! It comes from a book titled “My Jewish Year” by Adam Fisher:

“Many years ago there was a Roman emperor who loved to eat. The emperor was friendly with a rabbi who loved to cook.

The rabbi invited the emperor to dinner on Shabbat (the Sabbath). They ate a splendid meal of soup and vegetables and fish. For dessert the rabbi served the most delicious pie the emperor had ever tasted. When the emperor was finished, he thanked the rabbi and asked for the recipes. The rabbi was happy to give them to him.

During the week the emperor’s cook prepared all of the recipes, but the emperor was disappointed. He complained to the rabbi, ‘The food does not taste as good as it did in your house on Shabbat.’

‘Of course not,’ replied the rabbi. ‘The food did not have the Sabbath spice.’

‘But what is this Sabbath spice?’ asked the emperor. ‘Where can I buy it?’

The rabbi replied, ‘My friend, you cannot buy it. The Sabbath spice comes from the special feeling of peace and rest on Shabbat which makes all food so much better!’”[1]

If only relations between Romans and Jews had been so amicable in ancient times! Romans and Greeks persecuted the Jews for keeping the Sabbath. Unlike modern America, where it is common to have a weekend- two full days off from our employment, a weekly day of rest had no parallel in ancient civilization. The closest was the Babylonians who had a holiday called Shappatu, a day of rest observed during the monthly full moon. However, Shappatu was not a sanctified day but regarded as unlucky. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote that spending every seventh day without doing anything wastes one seventh of your life, basically accusing Jews of laziness.  You may recognize that same outlook in the character of Scrooge.

The origin of Shabbat according to the Hebrew Scriptures extends far back to the creation of heaven and earth itself. God created the world and all of its creatures in six days, and the seventh day He blessed as the Sabbath, declared it holy, and ceased from all the work of creation He had done.

Like many Unitarian Universalists, my parents are an interfaith couple. My maternal side is Portuguese Catholic. Some of my aunts and cousins still live in New Bedford. My paternal side is Jewish and all those relatives were part of the exodus from Brockton to the Boston area. My parents were married by a Unitarian minister and began attending a Unitarian Universalist church when I was three. I’ve always celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays at least Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter. Once I went to college, I studied and experienced a fuller appreciation for the complete liturgical cycle of both traditions. I feel a deep resonance with my Jewish heritage in particular.

My great-grandfather, Alfred Freedman, was a Russian Jew. After losing both his wife and children in Russia, he escaped to England and then immigrated to the United States where he settled in Brockton, Massachusetts. He worked in a raincoat factory. At the time, “The Walk-over Company” was the biggest shoe factory in Brockton. My great grandfather Alfred made extra money by taking the shoes that were of second quality and selling them door-to-door.   Like the story of the unusual friendship between the rabbi and the roman emperor, Alfred Freedman became friendly with George Keith, a Gentile and the owner of “Walk-over”. Mr. Keith even supported my great grandfather in starting his own business, which became Freedman Shoes. My grandfather was not religious when he came to this country; he was a socialist. As he grew older, he became quite religious. When George Keith died, the funeral was held on the Sabbath. My great grandfather felt obliged to pay his respect to the man who had shown him such kindness. However, there is a prohibition against riding on Shabbat.   So, he did not go with the entourage. Instead, he walked behind the funeral procession a couple of miles to the cemetery at once honoring his associate and observing his religious tradition. Alfred Freedman gained respect from the community for this noble act.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman rightly points out that even though honoring the Sabbath day is the fourth commandment, many people (including Jews) treat it as if there was an asterisk next to it. Rabbi Hoffman writes that it’s as if most people say “Here are nine commandments—and a suggestion”.[2]

Even though I feel a deep resonance with my Jewish heritage and I am very proud of my great-grandfather, I am not going to begin practicing an Orthodox observance of Shabbat. However, the inclusion of the Sabbath in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, is not trivial. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” This is the fourth commandment mentioned before the prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, lying and covetousness. More than a suggestion, it is a foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition of which we are a part.

So, what is this “Sabbath spice”? What is the missing ingredient that cannot be bought but makes all food taste so much better? How can we bring some of the qualities and intention of this age-old observance into our holiday celebrations and every day lives?

There are two key passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that refer to the Sabbath. The first appears in Exodus and the second in Deuteronomy. God instructs Moses “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” Deuteronomy reads “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded to you.” The difference in those passages is simply two words, “Remember” and “Observe”, zachor and shamor, in the original Hebrew. Jewish scholars assert that the use of these two words, “Remember” and “Observe” is significant. Shabbat requires both doing as well as refraining from doing things.

Zachor: to remember  We are asked to remember the creation story; the wonder and goodness of the world, which sustains life. During Shabbat, human beings emulate the divine example. Like a painter stepping back from a completed canvas, human beings pause from labor to appreciate the goodness of living. If God’s work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can we believe that our work is too important to set aside temporarily? It is a way of remembering our place as human beings with inherent worth beyond our productive capacities.

Zachor: to remember also connects us to our history. In remembering slavery and the exodus from Egypt, freedom and rest becomes more precious still. In remembering that our ancestors were slaves, rest is a sacred act not only for ourselves but for our children, employees, guests, and animals, as well. In this way remembering the Sabbath is an active protest against materialism and competition.

Shamor: to observe  I am not suggesting that we take up all the prohibitions of an Orthodox Shabbat. However, there is value in placing some boundaries and limits in order to encounter the sacred. This spiritual practice reminds us that we cannot do everything, no matter how worthy or important our goals. Nor can we be everything to everyone. So, by being intentional in our celebrations and allowing ourselves to experience the fullness of time, our souls are renewed.

The traditions of Shabbat are quite moving. The woman of the house lights the Sabbath candles, with a ritual gesture and spoken blessing. Some people light one candle for each member of the family. Every Friday evening the husband recites a love poem to his wife from Proverbs 31: “A woman of valor who can find? For her value is far above rubies”. There is also a special blessing of the children by their parents. There are blessings over the wine and bread so that eating itself becomes a religious act.

The experience of Shabbat is that of the world redeemed. The family is brought back to the direct experience of health, abundance, knowledge, and justice, if only for a day. The prayer is that the sweetness and peace of Shabbat fill the whole world.

So, as you prepare for the holiday season, trim your home with evergreens, find meaningful gifts for your loved ones, make the dishes that you enjoy in this season, but by all means stock up on the Sabbath spice! Observe limits to your own activity, create a time of rest when you can enter into the true spirit of the season. Remember both your history and privilege—where your ancestors came from, the wonder of life itself and the goodness that sustains you. Take a moment to say a blessing as you light a candle, recite a love poem to your romantic partner, place a hand on the brow of a child and bless them. During this holiday season, may an environment of peace and love in our own homes renew our souls, cleanse our hearts and empower us to bless the world.

[1] Fisher, Adam, My Jewish Year, Behrman House Inc, NJ: 1993, p. 61-62.

[2] Mikva, Rachel S. (ed.), Broken Tablets- Restoring the Ten Commandments & Ourselves, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT: 1999.

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