Shabbos: An Urban Oasis



In the previous letter – “Converts and Shabbos: A Message for All Israel” – we began to discuss how the observance of Shabbos elevates our relationship with the earth and its creatures, as well as with each other.  This discussion revealed a radical and universal message of Shabbos. In this letter, we will discuss how the observance of Shabbos enhances and elevates our urban environment.


Dear Friends,


In 1969, two well-known writers and journalists, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin, entered the Democratic primary in New York City as a team, with Mailer seeking the office of Mayor and Breslin seeking the office of City Council President. It was a period when a growing ecological concern for the health of the environment was emerging. The two writers proposed that on the last Sunday of every month, nothing would move or operate in the city for 24 hours, except for emergency vehicles. No planes, trains, automobiles, or anything requiring electric power was to run; thus, the city and its inhabitants would get a break from the stress and pollution of this ongoing technology. In addition to the ecological benefits, said Breslin, the bringing to a halt of these activities would “give human beings an opportunity to rest and talk to each other.” I was then living in New York City, and when I read their proposal, I smiled, for we, the people of the Torah, already have such a special day, and it arrives each week! Our special day is Shabbos, the Sacred Seventh Day.


My own neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, is an example of how the observance of Shabbos can develop an urban oasis which brings benefit to both the ecological environment and the social environment. Most of the streets of our neighborhood are closed to traffic on Shabbos, with the exception of emergency vehicles. As a result, the neighborhood becomes an urban mall, with residents walking on the streets and talking to each other. On Shabbos, we also get visitors from nearby neighborhoods who are not as religiously-observant as most of our residents, but who like to walk or jog on our serene, tree-lined streets. These visitors recognize in their own way that the opportunity to walk on our streets on Shabbos – without the noise and pollution of cars, buses, and trucks – is good for both the body and the soul.  I warmly greet these visitors with, “Shabbat Shalom,” and they return the greeting.


It is not only the absence of moving vehicles which contributes to the serenity of our streets on Shabbos; it is also the absence of the commercial activity of the six weekdays. The stores of our neighborhood are closed on Shabbos, and the main attractions on the streets are therefore the people. The observance of Shabbos gives the people of our neighborhood a greater opportunity to talk to each other without the usual weekday distractions.


The Sephardic pronunciation of “Shabbos” is “Shabbat.” When the State of Israel was established, it recognized “Shabbat” as the national day of rest.  There are, however, some Jews who refer to themselves as secular” – from both the right and the left of the Israeli political spectrum – who want Israeli society to emulate the ongoing consumerism of modern western culture with stores and businesses open seven days a week. A few years ago, Tommy Lapid, a right-of-center politician, formed a militant secular party which became the third largest party in Israel, and he lead a campaign to allow stores and businesses to be open seven days a week. As Lapid proclaimed to the public, “The shopping centers are our synagogues!” For Lapid and others like him, the God of Israel Who gave us the gift of the Sabbath was replaced by the modern god of consumerism. (To the surprise of Israeli political experts, Lapid’s party later experienced some strange mishaps, and by the next election, it disappeared.)


A few years ago, the secular kibbutz movement established shopping centers that were open on Shabbat. The movement also tried to get a labor court to declare that previous regulations mandating the closing of businesses on Shabbat were illegal. To their surprise, the judge defended these regulations, and he cited the following quote of Ahad Ha’am, a noted thinker of the modern Zionist movement:


“More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel.”


Whether we pronounce it Shabbat or Shabbos, this sacred day is a Divine gift – a special treasure which gives us great pleasure. As we sing at the Friday night meal:


“They will merit much good, those who take pleasure in it – with the redeemer’s coming, for the life of the World to Come.” (Menucha V’Simcha)


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments and Insights: Shabbos in the Land of Zion


1. The city of Bnei Brak is near Tel-Aviv, and it has about 160,000 residents. The majority of the residents are Chareidim, and most of the streets are closed on Shabbos to traffic, with the exception of emergency vehicles. Stores are also closed on Shabbos. The city is therefore famous for its serene and elevating Shabbos atmosphere.


2. Outside of the cities, one can find other centers of Shabbos observance – both Religious Zionist and Chareidi – in Torah-committed kibbutzim, moshavim, towns, and villages. The religious residents of these smaller communities, like the religious residents of the cities, are known for their warm hospitality, and they often host spiritually-searching Jews who desire to experience the uplifting atmosphere of a traditional Shabbos.


3. A previous letter – “The Healing Power of Converts” – discussed the spiritual journey of Ahuvah Gray, an African American convert who now lives in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and who has become a beloved and respected member of this mostly Chareidi community. Ahuvah’s second book – “Gifts of a Stranger” – describes her life after her conversion, and it contains the following excerpt which is from the description of her sister Nellie’s visit to Bayit Vegan:




Afterwards (on Thursday), we bought flowers and wine for our host families for Shabbos. Everyone greeted Nellie with warm, friendly smiles and courteous hellos as we walked down the street.

The next day, Nellie helped me prepare the house for Shabbos. At candle lighting time, Nellie expressed a wish to light the Shabbos candles, but without a brachah (blessing). After the lighting, we left for the Schwartzbaums, our hosts for Friday night dinner.

As we walked, Nellie asked, “What is this that I feel?”

“It’s the kedushah, holiness, of the Shabbos.”

How wonderful to know that she was able to sense this.

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