I remember the wet stones. When I lived in Jerusalem for a year, I spent Fridays slipping all over the place. In the hours before sunset, the Old City’s enchanting stones became slip-and-slides as young boys bearing buckets of water glazed the timeless stairways and passages, giving the holy city the last bath just before Shabbat.
The Friday routine touched the physical and the spiritual, the individual and the communal. There was the early morning schlep to Machane Yehuda, the famous open-air market, for wine, and airy challah so fresh you literally couldn’t wait until dinner to eat it. There was the falafel lunch (with chips, bevakasha) and compulsory Marzipan rugelach pickup. Then just before candle-lighting, it seemed as if the entire country would bathe and don blue and white clothing.
I knew Shabbat in college would be of a different, more challenging, order. In the Old City I was thrust into Shabbat, ready or not. Here, unconditionally setting aside 25 hours each week demands academic and social sacrifices. In response to these constraints I structure my school work around Shabbat. I also ensure that my Shabbos is fun, and exceeds any fraternity party in meaning, value, and enjoyment.
But what I couldn’t have anticipated was how college would threaten my Erev Shabbat, my Friday afternoon Shabbat preparation. For a while, my Friday afternoons were a routine of hastily showering and blitzing to services at Chabad or Hillel, while trying to properly button and maybe even tuck in a collared shirt. I would enter Shabbat feeling anxious and unsettled.
I didn’t foresee the need to protect and actively sustain my Erev Shabbat. If the week depends on the Sabbath, then Erev Shabbat is the stilts on which Shabbat rests. I only realized this after losing my Erev Shabbat. Too often I am caught just before candle-lighting (and maybe a little after too) hastily sending e-mails and wrapping up open assignments. When that happens, I enter Shabbat distracted. Stuck in a weekday mindset, the next 25 hours is a burden. I lose track of the holiness and can think only the restrictions: no typing, no email, no phone.
When I actively choose to dedicate the hours before Shabbat to Shabbat, in contrast, it yields a wholly different experience.
A holy experience.
As the daylight recedes, I’ll put on a Shlomo Carlebach Vinyl LP. Even if I’m not planning on hosting a meal, I find preparing something special for Shabbos helps foster the state of mind which I desire. It could be chocolate brownies, or if I’m feeling more ambitious, a crock-pot of cholent to share with my friends. I set out my Shabbos clothes and call home and speak with my family.
You can’t see the bigger picture without taking a step back, and that’s what Erev Shabbat is also about. Late Friday night, when I look around my apartment and see my friends singing zemirot over cholent, laughing, and reveling in the Shabbos Queen, I know that I am where I am meant to be (pardon the mystical language). It is a sensation more vast and deep than syllabi and flash cards could ever foster. This feeling depends on and is supported by Erev Shabbos (and maybe a few l’chaims). I am able to experience this aura of harmony only because of Erev Shabbos.
One might think that Erev Shabbat is solely functional: cooking, cleaning, and bathing. For me it is the other way around. Erev Shabbat is functionally soul-based; it is meaningful and holy onto itself. It is the beautiful moment just before. When it happens, and you know you are in it, you want to freeze that moment in time forever. But you cannot. There is immense holiness in that moment before the curtain rises. That’s the moment you have alone between you and God.
Michael Snow is a junior at Binghamton University, where he is studying philosophy, English and Judaic Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.