At Mount Sinai, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One conveyed to our entire nation – both men and women – the following message: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
During the first half of the 20th century, there were powerful political and social forces which contributed to the secularization of Jewish life in America; thus, most of the American Jews of my own generation grew up with little or no awareness of their deep spiritual heritage. When I connected with the spiritually-searching Jews of my generation, I discovered that many were not even aware that they could search for spirituality within their own Jewish heritage, for they were under the impression that being Jewish was primarily a “gastronomical” experience – a devotion to certain foods that American Jewish Ashkenazic families ate, such as chicken soup, chopped liver, and pastrami sandwiches.
A similar process of secularization had taken place in Israel, due to the influence of secular Zionism; thus, many Israeli Jews grew up with little or no awareness of their deep spiritual heritage. For example, in the previous letter, I shared with you Halkin’s story about Ya’ara and her cholent. The story revealed that all that Ya’ara knew about the Shabbos of her grandmother was that she cooked cholent in a pot with a knotted string attached. Ya’ara therefore had no awareness that her grandmother’s food preparation for Shabbos was actually part of a beautiful and deep Divine service.
In order to appreciate the Divine service of Ya’ara’s grandmother, we need to remember that the spiritual path of our people is not a path which seeks to escape this physical world; on the contrary, it connects us to this physical world so that we can dedicate each aspect of our physical existence to the higher and life-giving Divine purpose. This is why the mitzvos of the Torah relate to every area of our physical existence, including the preparation and eating of food. For example, Shabbos – the sacred Seventh Day – is especially dedicated to sanctifying our physical pleasures; thus, we are encouraged to enjoy in a holy manner on Shabbos various physical pleasures such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and marital relations. Enjoying these pleasures on Shabbos is therefore a mitzvah, and our tradition finds a source for this mitzvah in the following Divine call:
“You shall proclaim the Shabbos a delight” (Isaiah 58:13).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the mitzvah to proclaim the Shabbos a delight in his famous work on the Torah’s mitzvos, Horeb. In the chapter on celebrating Shabbos and the Festivals, he explains that these sacred days are “sanctuaries”; moreover, he states that “physical enjoyment” is part of our Divine service in these sanctuaries (chapter 25). This insight can help us to realize that when Ya’ara’s grandmother prepared the cholent for her family’s Shabbos delight, she was serving as a priestess in the Sanctuary of Shabbos, where the physical and the spiritual become one.
I will conclude this letter with the following insight of a leading Sephardic sage, the Ben Ish Chai, regarding Shabbos, or as the Sephardim say, “Shabbat”: We often experience conflict between the physical needs of the body and the spiritual needs of the soul; however, on Shabbat, when all our physical pleasures are dedicated to holiness, we experience “shalom” – harmony and peace – between body and soul. According to the Ben Ish Chai, this is a reason for the Sephardic custom of greeting each other on the Sacred Seventh day with “Shabbat Shalom!”
My we soon experience the era when all Israel will experience Shabbat Shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Hazon – Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/