Friday afternoon is a special time here in Jerusalem. Vehicular traffic is sparse and people rush to the stores for their last minute Shabat needs. But there is a general mood of relaxed anticipation. The erev Shabat plays an important role in the Shabat mood itself.
I remember from my days in the United States when we Shabat observers poured into the synagogue for the Friday night Shabat services, still tense and nerve-wracked from the traffic driving home from our workplaces, and often only arriving before the time of Shabat by the skin of our teeth. It took hours to get our bodies, minds and souls into the Shabat mode.
The late, great Rabbi Yakov Kaminetzky once told me in his inimitable talent for saying everything in a few words: “We have been successful in saving the Shabat in America but not the erev Shabat.”
One of the great pluses, among many others, that I have found for myself in living in Jerusalem is the erev Shabat. I am engaged in Shabat from the early morning of Friday until it finally arrives. And when Shabat makes its holy entrance into my life I am calm, almost serene, as I welcome it and absorb it into my being.
I am struck by the hush that precedes its entrance, even in a neighborhood such as mine where there are main traffic arteries that operate on Shabat itself and fine neighbors who are not necessarily complete Shabat observers. Shabat here is very special. But so is erev Shabat.
The Talmud records for us that many of the great rabbis and scholars of the time were personally involved in preparing their houses, tables and meals for Shabat. From setting the table to curing the salted fish to sweeping the floors, all of these were considered to be noble and important activities in readying the home and one’s self for the arrival of Shabat.
Though I am neither great nor overly scholarly, in our home I am in charge of setting the table and supervising the Shabat food cooking in our oven. The latter is done surreptitiously, since that is really my wife’s domain and division of labor is a wise course for a successful marriage relationship. Nevertheless, this allows me to tell guests at our Shabat table that the food was prepared under strict rabbinical supervision.
Jewish tradition also prescribes that the husband should prepare the candles that his wife will later light in welcoming in the Shabat to their home. I find this to be an act of affection to my wife and to the Shabat itself. The custom is that the husband actually lights the candles to make certain that the wicks are in proper order and then extinguishes them until they are lit for Shabat.
It is the small things in life and home that build the great relationship. Judaism does not recognize or designate this as being a small thing – and certainly not as to the necessity for preparing the home and one’s self for Shabat.
The Talmud uses the relationship of erev Shabat and Shabat itself as a metaphor for life itself. It states: “One who toils on erev Shabat will eat well on Shabat.” This is not only valid in a literal sense but it reflects the Jewish attitude towards life and living in a general sense. Enjoying success – Shabat - in any endeavor, educational, commercial or personal is always conditioned on toiling beforehand – erev Shabat.
The rabbis in Avot stated: “According to the effort and pain is the reward and payment.” Judaism posits ‘no free lunch’ to anyone. It is the erev Shabat that alone creates the Shabat in all of its grandeur, simplicity and serenity. The fact that Friday afternoons are already times of business closings and home preparations contribute greatly to this erev Shabat atmosphere.
No matter how different Jews have attempted to have a Jewish life without a traditional and observant Shabat it is now abundantly clear that the Shabat remains the cornerstone of Jewish life and continuity. The famous slogan that “More than the Jews have kept the Shabat, the Shabat has kept and preserved the Jews” has never been more true and telling than in our time.
When all of the ideologies that were supposed to redeem us from our troubles have visibly and miserably failed, the Shabat remains a beacon of light and hope for Israel and a symbol of our eternal covenant with our Creator. And therefore, that is what makes the erev Shabat such a vital part of our society.