[T]he most widely known ritual in Jewish life is Shabbat. On a "technical" level, Shabbat is about creating a day of rest in commemoration of God's rest after the Six Days of creation. As the Torah clearly explains, God commanded that:
the Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.
According to this view, Jews do not cook, use fire, build, destroy, shop, or go to work on Shabbat because these activities are all derivative of the Torah's conception of work. Just as God ceased working on the seventh day, Jews abstain from work on Shabbat.
While this explanation of Shabbat is important, it also fails to inspire many Jews. They wonder: How am I to take this seriously if I'm not convinced that the world was created in six days? Why should I take a huge portion of my precious free tome and adopt all these constraints? Why should I "imitate" what God did? Aren't there more important elements of Godliness that I would be better off emulating?
These are important questions, but they miss part of the point. The idea of Shabbat is not simply that imitating God is important for its own sake. Rather, Shabbat insists that this "imitation" has important spiritual and emotional implications for the people involved in it. How? One implication is the element of connection. Indeed, Shabbat is largely about connection. Shabbat gives Jews a chance to appreciate the people who give meaning to their life.
[F]or many Jews, no matter how Jewishly learned or accustomed to Shabbat they may be, what remains compelling about Shabbat are the connections and relationships that it renews and reinvigorates. Newcomers to a traditional Shabbat evening meal are often struck not by the theological or overtly religious elements of the evening, but by the simply human dimension of Shabbat. What stays with them is the simple sight of parents placing their hands on children to bless them, or of a husband singing a song of praise and love to his wife. The memories that linger are those of families gathered around a table singing, of genuine celebration and festivity somehow created in the very midst of hectic and often numbing pace of life.
With time, what many Jews discover about Shabbat, a day that Abraham Joshua Heschel called a "palace in time," is the irony that its restrictions are ultimately liberating. While many people commonly complain that a day on which they cannot work seems overly restrictive, Jewish tradition has come to see Shabbat as a day on which we are freed from working. In an age of fax machines, car phones, pagers, and other gadgets that seem to find us wherever we are and that seem to suggest that everything is an emergency, Shabbat suggests that virtually nothing is that urgent. The genius of Shabbat is that it restores a sense of values and priorities. It "forces" Jews to leave their computers and offices, thus reuniting them with friends and family members who more urgently need their attention, their company, and their devotion.
Ironically, because they "cannot" work on Shabbat, Jews experience themselves as freed from having to work. Because their tradition "commands" this day and its particular spiritual qualities, we are somehow forced to undergo a change we know we need. No one puts it more poetically than Heschel:
The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as sovereign in the world of time. In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where he may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.
In its emphasis on familial and communal celebration, the modern observance of Shabbat transforms "imitation" and turns it into connection. It fosters Judaism's spiritual richness by creating a way of life that virtually ensures that we will embark on the journey in the company of other people, searching and yearning as we are.
Shabbat is not the only ritual in Jewish life that fosters relationship and connection. While each life-cycle ritual (the bris, naming ceremonies for girls, weddings, funerals, and the like) has its own symbolism and its own message, and each holiday on the annual calendar cycle (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and the others) celebrates a different value or event, what ultimately makes them powerful is the sense of community that they provide. Sharing many of these holidays and life-altering moments together somehow creates the connectedness that many modern Jews desperately want but have not found elsewhere. When they finally find that connection, they find spiritual richness, a sense of intimacy. They find meaning.
There is an intimacy to sharing in naming a friend's baby. There is warmth and a sense of connectedness to be found in spending Sukkot afternoon in a fragile booth, singing, studying, and interrupting life's other commitments simply to celebrate and rejoice. It is no accident that Judaism encourages a minyan, or prayer quorum, for circumcisions and weddings. Jewish tradition insists that these moments need to be public, not private. For it is not only the individual celebrants who are touched at births and weddings. These are powerful moments that also enrich the communities that come to share them. Communities need moments when they can collectively express a prevailing optimism, when they can rejoice in the continuing possibility of hope. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French sociologist, once commented that communities feel robbed when couples decide to elope, for communities then lose the opportunity to express that hope, to feel that optimism.
Even rituals of grief, most notably the funeral, serve an important function for both the people in crisis as well as for those coming to lend support. Jewish funerals are hauntingly stark. Flowers are not part of traditional Jewish funerals, for they mitigate the harshness of the reality that needs to be confronted. The coffin must be wooden, so that it, like the body, will gradually return to "dust." When Jewish tradition encourages each person at the funeral to assist in the filling in of the grave, it forces each of us to confront our own mortality. The tradition reminds us that one day, we, too, will be buried in similar fashion. But while the confrontation with our own mortality can be harrowing, Jewish funerals ameliorate the inevitably profound fear by creating a sense of connectedness to other human beings. In Jewish tradition, the community does not disband at the cemetery but returns to the home of one of the relatives to gather to pray, to recollect, and to comfort. Jewish tradition insists that the mourner remain at home for seven days, to receive visitors and to be reassured that he or she is not alone. For eleven months after the death of a parent, the mourner stands in the synagogue and recites the Kaddish, thus acknowledging her or his need for support in the face of recent loss. Even in death, Judaism builds community and connection. It comforts us with the implicit assurance that when we die those we love will be cared for by a community similar to the one we now see assembled for someone else.
Though we will see that most Jewish rituals also have complex symbolisms, their most powerful quality may be the most obvious: they create and invigorate connections and relationships. Jewish ritual is about interrupting the pace of modern life to provide a chance to think about and to celebrate that which is more enduring, more compelling, and more important. Shabbat, births, weddings, funerals, holidays: beyond their individual significances, each helps to reestablish Jews' connections to the people who give their lives context, joy, and meaning.
Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire (New York: Scribner, 1995), pp. 105-109.