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Judith Shulevitz, Making Room For The Sabbath

Mar 31, 2010 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Every Friday night, writer Judith Shulevitz and her family have a traditional Shabbat dinner. Shabbat, which means "to cease" in Hebrew, is traditionally observed in Judaism from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday evening. The Shulevitzes eat challah — a twist bread meant to symbolize the manna that fed the Jews in the wilderness — and light candles, reciting blessings over wine. On Saturdays, the family goes to synagogue, where a portion of the Torah is read and studied.

In her new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, Shulevitz details how she came to see Shabbat as an important part of her week. She tells Terry Gross that she decided to write the book because of her initial ambivalence about observing a weekly day of rest.

"I don't like being told what to do — and don't like being told how to spend my time," Shulevitz says. "[Also] I should add that the Sabbath is full of rules — the Jewish Sabbath in particular, but the Christian Sabbath as well."

Shulevitz notes that the Talmud lists 39 categories of work that observant Jews are not allowed to perform on the Sabbath, including baking, plowing and shearing wool. She says the rules have been updated for modern times; rules that initially governed the lighting of fires have been transformed to limit how observant Jews should handle electricity on the Sabbath. But the basic principle uniting all of these rules, she says, is about acknowledging that humans do not exert mastery over the world.

"For one day a week, you let the world be as it is," she says. "And you be in it, and try not to dominate it."

Though her family doesn't observe all of those rules, Shulevitz says that she enjoys observing Shabbat in her own way because it gives her family time to be together in a world filled with distractions.

"One problem with the modern weekend as I experience it — and I have two young children — is that they want to play soccer, and they want to have play dates, and they want to do things," she says. "If you don't pay attention to setting aside time to be together, you possibly won't."

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