One of the coolest things we did happened while we were in Jerusalem. The Jewish Sabbath begins Friday evening at sundown, so we joined a local congregation for their Friday Shabbat service. Following the service, our group was divided among the families of the synagogue to go to their homes for their Shabbat meal.
As a non-Jew, this 24-hour period is very interesting to observe. We were with Modern Orthodox Jews, and their specific traditions included no use of anything that displays man's creation (i.e. electricity, cell phones, tv, computers). Starting at sundown they avoid flipping light switches, using their cell phones, turning on/off the oven, and driving (therefore they live within walking distance of their synagogues). To get around this they often use timers to pre-program the lights, and they prepare food ahead of time and place it on warmers to keep it hot.
We started our evening at a local synagogue. The time of the service depends on when the sun will set that particular day, because an important part of the service is welcoming in Shabbat at sundown. The entire service was in Hebrew, so we had no idea what was being said. There was a lot of singing, but no instrumental music. Men sat on the main floor and women sat in the balcony.
After the service while we were waiting in the hallway, the lights went out because of the timer. We moved to a better lit location since it would be a violation of the Sabbath to turn them back on.
Matt and I were part of a group of six who went to the home of a middle-aged couple. Their youngest son still lived at home. This family had moved to Israel from Australia. Also in attendance were at least three other families (most of them also from Australia) and five Jewish girls from Maryland who were on their birthright trip. We had twenty-nine people in total at the meal!
The traditional Shabbat meal was fascinating. We first sat down, a song was sung (in Hebrew, of course), and each person drank a shot glass of grape juice. The parents then said a blessing over each of their children. Afterward we went to the sink for ceremonial washing of our hands, which involved splashing water from a cup three times over each hand while reciting a prayer. We returned to the table for soup and wine. After the soup, the patriarch of the home stood and said a few words. The Torah reading for that week was from Exodus and covered the first seven plagues of Moses. He posed a question, "Why was Pharaoh's heart continually hardened during the plagues?" And each person then introduced themselves and offered their answer. With twenty-nine people this took a fair amount of time, but I loved hearing what everyone had to say in response to the question. It was a very non-threatening way of expressing our thoughts, and hearing the different answers was a great way to learn from each other regardless of age, religion, or education.
By this point it had been long enough that I thought maybe soup was all we were having for dinner. I was feeling content with this when we were told to take our plates to the kitchen and serve ourselves buffet-style. Oh my, the food! Our hostess had prepared sliced roast beef, chicken, green beans, delicious mushrooms, more veggies, rice, salad...I can't remember it all there was so much! We ate our food and enjoyed conversation with the people sitting around us.
One of the women in our group was then asked to share more about the Mennonites (our group was Mennonite-affiliated). She did a good job explaining the history of the denomination and some of our Christian practices. There were a few questions, such as do Mennonites marry only other Mennonites and if there are any specific things we are not allowed to do because of our Christian faith. The families present were very interested in our answers and listened intently. We were able to ask our own questions as well throughout the evening. The whole night was loud, boisterous, warm, inviting, and generally wonderful. I felt very welcomed by our host family and comfortable in their presence.
Since we had a set time to return to our bus, our host asked us if we wanted to head out or stay for the closing prayer/song. We wanted the whole experience, so we opted to stay. More singing was done, and then we were served cake and gelato (meat and dairy are not to be mixed at a meal) for dessert. We said our goodbyes and thank yous and left feeling full, warm, and happy.
I had at least two thoughts at the end of the night. The first was how saddened I was to have no pictures documenting the night. Since electronics were off limits to them, we respected that and didn't use ours. The second was that we would all do well to adopt some of these Jewish traditions. Because they don't use cell phones or computers or other electronics, and because these Shabbat meals are such a big deal, there is an immense sense of family and community created by everyone coming together. No one is distracted by texting or Facebook, so everyone can focus on fellowship. Certain activities are off-limits, so no one is burdened by getting extra chores and work done. The 24-hour period of the Sabbath is very intentional and deliberate, bringing families together and focusing on God and worship.
Matt and I have discussed this, and while we will probably not go to the same extremes, we do hope to facilitate our own Sunday environment of worship, fellowship, and rest. Ironically enough, this takes a fair amount of work to accomplish. In our culture it's difficult to simply shut out all of those nagging tasks that always loom overhead. It's hard to find friends who desire these same intentions and who are available to fellowship with us outside of the church service. Time is precious, and it's hard for me to not strive to use every minute efficiently. But the Sabbath is necessary. It's a lost practice, and we desire to redeem what we can.