“For in six days God made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed Shabbat and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11)
Today, Friday, marks the beginning of the end of my first week here in Berkeley as an Urban Adamah Fellow. Sundown on this day will also mark the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest which continues until the following sundown on Saturday. As I’m writing this, I hear the peaceful sounds—with the occasional expletive sprinkled in—of a house full of my newfound friends preparing to welcome in this time-honored Jewish tradition: the cooking of the Shabbat meal, pairs of feet padding lightly up and down the carpeted hall, a shower running. Already, I can feel the sense of rest and ease sifting down like a gentle snowfall over our home, a welcome respite after a long day of Avodat Sadeh (service of the field) at the farm. They say it usually doesn’t get up into the 80s in Berkeley, but this has been a particularly hot week. By now, I think that even the hardiest of us are ready to lay down our tools and take a break.
Shabbat is not a tradition that we observed in my (half-) Jewish home growing up. Although it is a weekly holiday “guarded” (to borrow from Deuteronomy) throughout the millennia by generation after generation of Jews, Shabbat is still a relatively new observance in my life, and so tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming in the Sabbath) holds a double significance for me: as our community welcomes in the Sabbath for the first time together, I will be welcoming it as a new tradition into my life, one that I will perhaps observe in one way or another for the rest of my days. Given the double meaning for me of this particular Shabbat, and the conversations we’ve been having about the tradition today, I’ve been thinking a lot about its meaning and particular resonance in my life right now. In some ways, it seems to me, these three months at Urban Adamah are something like an extended Shabbat, a time for rest. This might seem like a strange claim given the fact that most of my time here is going to be spent doing farm work, but bear with me.
In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath comes with a long list of rabbinic guidelines about what one can and cannot do during that span of time between when the first three stars of evening appear in the sky on Friday and the sun sets on Saturday. This includes things like not being allowed to handle money, tear paper, drive a car, or operate a light switch. As a highly observant Jew, what you’re supposed to do on Shabbat is stay home (and/or go to temple… but don’t drive!), pray, and be happy about it. To many less observant Jews, these rules seem extremely draconian, just another example of how halakha (Jewish law) wrecks any chance of a Jew having a good time. Thus, for many, Shabbat passes by unmarked. But there is another way to look at the tradition, one that is suggested by the manifold restrictions and yet is not beholden to their strict observance. It goes back to the quote from Exodus above about “God [blessing] Shabbat and [making] it holy,” and it has to do with mindfulness.
What does it mean to make Shabbat holy? If the basis for our observance of Shabbat is that we are following God’s example in “resting on the seventh day,” then how, exactly, are we to follow Their example in “blessing” this specific span of time? The rabbinic prescriptions regarding Shabbat achieve this one way by providing a bunch of rules and practices that set Shabbat apart from any other day of the week. The important thing is that Shabbat is somehow different from any old day, that it is in some way special. The other important thing about all of those rules is that they fall under the general justification of one not being allowed to engage in any form of “labor” during that special time. In this way, the proscriptions allow us to have a special amount of awareness during Shabbat—awareness of the day itself, but also (since we are not working and are not even supposed to be thinking about work) awareness of all the things that we usually shove to the side during our hectic weeks. These are things like our family, our community, our God, and ourselves. Observing Shabbat forces you to step out of the whirlpool of everyday life, to just live and just be, and it is in this way that I feel like my time here at Urban Adamah is something like an extended Shabbat.
Having recently graduated and then now having traveled all the way across the country to Berkeley in order to be here, it feels like the time that I will be spending at Urban Adamah is “special,” in many ways set apart from the rest of the life that I have known. As a recent graduate back in Virginia, I felt myself weighed down by all of these questions about what I would be doing next in life, about where I was going and what it would all amount to. There are so many things that I want to experience in the short time that I have, but as of yet, I still have no idea how to go about accessing those experiences. In addition to these broader concerns, I also carry the basic anxiety of how to survive in a world where money is a necessity and things like food, water, and shelter aren’t a guarantee. But being out here, working with the land, connecting with the amazing people around me, and trying to be of service to the broader Bay Area community, it feels like I can let go of all of those questions, at least for the time being. Like I can just breathe and be. And that, surely, is a blessing.
Another aspect of Shabbat which connects to my experience with Urban Adamah is brought into focus in a line from Deuteronomy, chapter 5: “You shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you.” Shabbat is not just a rite to be observed by us as individuals, but rather that a day of rest is a right to be extended to everyone in our community, including our animals, our servants, and even strangers in our midst. In this way, it can be read as a call to social action, a call to be mindful of the needs of others and to help them satisfy those needs. It is my hope that through the labor that I do perform over the course of my fellowship that I can help to improve the material stakes of underprivileged residents of the Bay Area, if even only in a small way, to lighten their load a little bit so that they, too, can find some time for rest.