top of page
Study and Theory/

Dr. Irit Aminof

My Shabbat – Past and Present

Jezreel Valley, Summer 5759

A. Friday Night and Candle Lighting

In Tel Arza, the neighborhood of my youth, the Shabbat would settle over the tops of the cypress trees with a different light than that of the rest of the weekday eves. Ordinarily, I would stand on our northern porch (*) and stare at the light waves as they dim and disappear beyond the roofs of the houses on the downward path to Sanhedria (**).  When the last glows of the red flames disappeared off the edges of the cypresses – I knew it was Shabbat. In those years the sounds of chanting and prayers emerging from the many synagogues in each yard in our neighborhood, on the border of the Bukharim Quarter, held no special significance for me. I was far from knowing that one day I would delve into the pages of the Talmud and the literature of our Sages of blessed memory and that I would spread their teachings to masses. Then, the last rays of sun of the pre-Shabbat sunset spoke to me and I enjoyed standing alone on the verandah, across the faded light and the curtains closed for Shabbat in the windows of the houses on our street.

My mother lit the Shabbat candles, but not according to the "timetable fixed by law".


My mother, daughter of idealistic bundists from White Russia and Lithuania, did not even know there was a "particular timetable" for lighting Shabbat candles. She, [a member of the "National Guard" who immigrated to Israel with my father, whom also belonged to the "National Guard" in the early thirties] felt the hour of Shabbat and then lit her candles.

Nowadays as well, when the sun sets on the eve of Shabbat, I return to Tel Arza and clearly visualize the tops of the cypress trees in a dark red illumination as lit candles and when it disappears, they stand like black images in the evening light. I remember that when we sang in school: "The Shabbat descended on Ginosar Valley and an ancient scent within her brims", I had wondered why the writer hadn't known that the Shabbat descended on Tel Arza of Jerusalem and nowhere else.

(*) In Jerusalem of my youth, there was no use of the word "mirpeset"(meaning – porch), and we all stood or sat on "gezustraot"(another word meaning – porch). When "mirpeset" arrived at our city, I was already a big girl.

(**) That very path that descends from Tel Arza to Sanhedria, is an important street today, bearing the controversial name of Bar Ilan. At that time, when it was not quite a wide road, it had slopes on which my brother and sister would roll on their skates down to the Sanhedria park, with me racing close behind, and my older brother would ride me on his bike downhill while my heart palpitated with fear of the steep ride. When the road was covered with black asphalt by the "conquering roller", an end came to the downhill path to Sanhedria, as it was replaced by the newly paved "road to Sanhedria". 

Eventually, when I established my own home, I knew that I would light the Shabbat candles only when the sun goes down and its rays shine through the dark treetops, not earlier and no later!

I never know and would not like to know the formal hour of the entrance of Shabbat according to the Halacha nor the discrepancy of candle lighting time at the regions of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I light Shabbat candles when the last rays rest on the tree tops, when I may house is washed, clean and ready and when the table is all set with festivity in honor of Shabbat, when I will have bathed, am clean and feel – Shabbat. Only then can I light Shabbat candles that are meaningful.

I cannot tolerate the "revolutionary innovation" of Chabad Chassidut in the form of a "Mitzva Tank" that passes through our streets and notifies candle lighting time, with ear-splitting loudspeakers, to all daughters of Israel, kosher and less kosher. My candles, that were lit when I was the one who felt the arrival of Shabbat, therefore shine until the late of hours of the night, and during all of these hours the house is filled with festive aura.

I have probably targeted the opinion of the Sages in determining the candle lighting time:

Rabbi Chanina used to get wrapped up and would stand on the eve of Shabbat when it became dark, and would say: Let us greet the Shabbat Queen.

Shabbat 119-1

Due to my many years of involvement in our sources and in the lives of our rabbis of blessed memory, it is clear to me that from days of yore, we had controversies regarding our interpretations and our behavior in the framework of the scripture and its commentators. One of the stories on the gullible Chanina the son of Dosa, testifies that what he had understand in a simplified form, was perhaps, not understood by the "appointees" that guarded the framework.

One Shabbat evening, he saw that his daughter was unhappy.

He told her: My daughter, why are you sad?

She told him: I had unintentionally used a vessel of vinegar instead of a vessel of oil and I lit Shabbat candles from it.

He told her: My daughter, what do you care? He who told oil to ignite, shall tell vinegar to ignite!

We learn: It lit for the entire day to the extent that the Havdalah candle was lit from it.

Ta'anit 25 -1


What do you care my daughter?! He told her. Whomever commanded the oil to light, can definitely tell vinegar, sand or water to light. You had the wholehearted intention to light those Shabbat candles, and is it that important that vinegar took the place of oil? What's important is that you lit the candles, you had the intention, and you sanctified the day. And even though you erred with the details of the candle lighting, the primary importance is that of your intention which remained pure. This is the way I view his words.


And as important as the materials for lighting candles are, so is the importance of the time of candle lighting. I have never attributed a special value to the hour written on the calendar, if the individual lighting the candle is not ready for Shabbat inasmuch as the intention to welcome the Shabbat is preserved, any hour for this is good as another.


B. Observing Shabbat and Honoring it

Nowadays I maintain my right to explain to whomever views me and those who resemble me, as value-lacking gentiles, since we have observed and sustained the Shabbat by its flavor and scent. When we were children, the special scent of Shabbat was reflected in the Cholent cooking on a kerosene stove in the corner of our small kitchen. As the aroma rose, we knew Shabbat "had settled" on us. We felt and we experienced, we loved and we enjoyed it in the spirit of the dialogue between Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chananya and the Roman Caesar about one thousand and eight hundred years ago:

The Caesar said to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chananya: Why does the Shabbat dish give off its scent:

He responded: We have one spice named Shabbat in which we place in it and it gives off a scent.

He told him: Give me some of it.

He told him: It is only beneficial to those who observe Shabbat and whomever does not observe Shabbat cannot benefit from it.

Shabbat 119 -1


Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chananya explains to the Caesar in his words, that only one who observes, in other words: experiences the presence of Shabbat, can feel the taste of the spice and it would "benefit him". Whoever does not observe it, in other words, did not experience it, being that he is not a member of our religion, would not be able to feel the spice.

And just as spices, taste and odors distinguish between people, so was the flavor of my-our Shabbat, different than that of its taste and scent as experienced by my neighbors in the old "Beit Israel" quarter and those experienced by the traditional "Geula" neighborhood and definitely not like those experienced in the Hareidi "Meah Shearim" quarter.

What is clear though. is that both they and we felt it, we loved it, we enjoyed it each in our way, and the spice benefited us truly and authentically.


Our major problem nowadays is in understanding the concept of keeping Shabbat and honoring it.

Our parents understood this concept well and when we were still children, before we exercised discretion, we genuinely felt the concept of Shabbat. Which of us didn't have a nice white shirt for Shabbat, with dark blue pants or skirts, in contrast to what we wore all week? Since my kindergarten days to date I zealously maintain the difference between weekday clothes and those of Shabbat. Also when I attended events at the "Shomer Hatzair" centers on Jerusalemite Friday nights, my appearance and those of my friends were different. [When I heard Matti Caspi's song: a path in the middle a path on the side /one and all thoroughly bathed/ what cleanliness what order / what a beautiful parade/, I smiled with joy, and I knew he sang about me and my age group.]


And so, unintentionally, our parents had directed us then, following the words of our sages, who understood the importance of changing one's external appearance when welcoming the Shabbat, and who therefore emphasized the fact that Shabbat garments differ from weekday clothes.


" And you shall bathe and anoint yourself and put on your clothes" [Ruth 3 3:]

"And you shall bathe" – from the dirt of your idol worshipping, "And you shall anoint yourself" – these are commandments and charities,

"And you shall put on your clothes" – was she naked? No, but this is referring to her Shabbat clothes.

From this Rabbi Chanina learns: A man must have two garments, one for the weekdays and one for Shabbat.

[And when Rabbi Simlai had interpreted it in this way, the colleagues wept and stated:

Due to our great poverty, our clothes during the week is our clothes on Shabbat.]


Without intending to, our lives also matched the words of the sages on the verse:


"and honor it by not doing your wonted ways, by not pursuing your affairs and speaking words"

[Isaiah 58, 13]

"And honor it" – that your clothing on Shabbat should differ that of the weekdays"...

... – That your speech on Shabbat shall differ that of the weekdays...

...- That your way of walking on Shabbat should differ that of the weekdays...

Shabbat 113 -2


I can definitely proclaim that our conversations at home and in the youth group gatherings, were more festive and diverted from the prosaic day to day details. The topics of activities on Friday nights [which was how we named them then], were always different, weightier and more serious. Nowadays I smile with amusement at reading the words of the Yerushalmi:

"Rabbi Chia said: When Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would see his mother engage in speech of secular nature, he would tell her: Mother, it is Shabbat today"!

The concept "Observing Shabbat" also entails the vague term of "Honoring Shabbat". Although I agree with those who claim that "honor" is a relative term, yet this honor is visible and even palpable. I believe it is possible to "observe the Shabbat" according to Halachic rulings and at the same time to desecrate its honor, just as it is possible to honor it without observing its laws.


In the midrash, there is the famous story about the cow of a Jew who was sold to a non-Jew and did not budge from its crouching position on Shabbat:

"Our Rabbis said: There was a tale in Israel about a man who had one ploughing cow.

He turned poor and he sold it to a gentile.

When the gentile got hold of it, it ploughed for him during the weekdays.

On Shabbat he took it out to plough and it crouched under its burden.

So the gentile would beat it yet it would not budge from its place.


Since he realized this, he went and told the Israelite who sold it to him:

Come and take your cow, perhaps it is ailing, since as much as I beat it, it does not budge from its place.

The Israelite understood that this was because of Shabbat, on which the cow was used to resting.

He told the gentile: I will go and get it to rise.

When he arrived at where the cow was located he whispered in its ear: Cow, cow. you know that when you were in my possession you would plough on weekdays and rest on Shabbat, now, due to my sins, you are in the hands of the gentile, please rise and plough.

So the cow rose and ploughed". Etc.

Pesikta Rabbati Chapter 14 "A Cow" [Ish Shalom Edition 56 – 2]


I would not define that cow as an observer of Halacha. It would be proper to view it as an animal who had experienced and physically sensed the essence of the day of rest and when it was sold to a gentile it continued its routine and rested.


Also for the cow, had the Shabbat turned into a fundamental need for existence. I have heard more than once that we are called by names more derogatory than that cow, who, compared to us – knew how to observe commandments.


I am not insulted by this comparison!


Our predecessors, who knew how to instill the sensitivity to Shabbat in cattle, animals and even in plants – had a deep intention by doing this, much deeper than the superficial description of what had occurred with that cow.


They understood that the feeling of Shabbat encompasses not only man but also all beings including fauna and flora: 

Rabbi Shimon said in the name of Rabbi Simon Chasida:

In this world a man goes to pick figs [on Shabbat] – the fig does not respond.

But in the future a man shall go to pick a fig and the fig screams proclaiming: It is Shabbat!

Shocher Tov, Psalms 73: [Baber Edition 168-1]


3. Desecrating the Shabbat


Dozens of sayings of the sages emphasize the reward for Shabbat observers in contrast to the punishment of those who desecrate it.


From the saying:

For the sin of an oath made in vain, a false oath, the desecration of G-d's name and the desecration of Shabbat, wild beasts multiply, and cattle become scarce, and population lessens and the roads are barren.

Shabbat 33-1


Through difficult ordeals:

Our rabbis have learned: For three sins do child-bearing mother's die...

Rabbi Acha says: For the sin of washing their children's wastes on Shabbat"-

Shabbat 32-1


Up until a historically important saying:


Abbaye says: Jerusalem was not destroyed for any other reason but for the desecration of Shabbat.

Shabbat 119-1


Yet, in contrast to all of these stands the humane perception indicating that

Saving lives – overrules Shabbat.


And also: We learn, Rabbi Shimon son of Gamliel says:

For a day old infant alive – the Shabbat may be desecrated,

For King David – dead – the Shabbat may not be desecrated

Shabbat 151-2.


For those alive, our sages maintain, it is permissible to desecrate the holiness of Shabbat since its sanctity is secondary in importance to the sanctity of life. I do not use the term "holiness" widely yet in order to clarify this principle, I could not find a term that would better explain its meaning.


Important symbols such as Shabbat, or as David the King of Israel, always bear a lower status than the value of life, therefore a day-old-infant who is alive and may be saved supersedes the sublime value of the Shabbat. On the other hand, if even David, the king of Israel, is not alive, there is no reason for which it is worthwhile or proper to desecrate the Shabbat over him, and the status of Shabbat remains on a higher level than him.


This is the Shabbat, that contains not only an "extra soul" but a unique perception, understanding and world wisdom. This is the Shabbat we had accepted.

4. The Remembrance of Shabbat

If anyone asks me at the age of one hundred, what my deepest memory of Shabbat is, I'd say without hesitation: A radio program named "Hebrew Songs at your Request". Every Shabbat afternoon at twelve o'clock in the afternoon, prior to the meal, the entire family would surround the "singing box" from which emerged: the voice of Shoshana Damari singing "Bat Sheva", "Aya", "A Single Sign on the Left of the Harel Road", or "The Anemone", the voice of Samson Bar Noy singing emphatically about the Kineret, the voices of the Brigade Singers with "The song of Praise", or of the Chizbatron band with the song "Light Ammunition" of the Independence War.


The house was filled with sounds and music of the Land of Israel and with love to the people of Israel and to its land.


This was an Israeli Shabbat that was very special, we loved it and together with it we loved everything connected to our Israeli and Jewish existence. In terms of the Halacha, I admit, we desecrated it, but from the perspective of the moral connection to the people, to the culture and to the land – we observed it and honored it.

This was and still is my Shabbat, that is our Shabbat.


Whether it enters our homes at four thirty on Friday afternoons, or it enters our homes at seven o'clock in the evenings, whether we turn on the radio or the 'music box' and listen to music or whether we listen to the prayers resounding from the synagogues, the contents instilled in it is ours – personally.


As long as we fill it with joy and with an essential distinction from the weekdays, we do not desecrate it, we observe it, honor it and even keep it.


[Having a "close acquaintance" with Elisha the son of Avuyah I have no doubt that even on those dramatic moments he was on his horse on Shabbat, Elisha, like us, felt the burden of Shabbat on his back and experienced it via the hooves of his horse. And when he commands Rabbi Meir, his student and friend, to return to the town so that the latter does not desecrate the Shabbat he expresses his deepest feeling of the Shabbat experience, even if Elisha is perceived by the public as one of the desecraters and mockers of Shabbat]


And also we, who pour contents into Shabbat that distinguish it from the weekdays – and treat it with love, can anyone say that we do not observe it? that we do not honor it?


Only we have the answer, only we do!

More >
bottom of page