In a Pandemic, Shabbat Fatigue is a Real Thing

Without guests, it just doesn’t feel like Shabbat.
February 8, 2021
Photo by Carol Yepes/Getty Images

You know you should do something special, like set the table and put out real plates (as opposed to paper ones) or go out for a walk, but whom are you kidding? You’re just going to lay on the couch and watch to see which one of your kids will trip over the heap of toys on the floor first.

Shabbat fatigue was even a thing before the pandemic, especially for women. But when your kids are home every day and you’re not going to synagogue or hosting guests on Shabbat, the only difference between Friday and Saturday is that you eat more during the latter (half of that eating is related to elevating Shabbat with good food and the other half is related to stress-eating because your children are using your underwear and a twig as a slingshot).

For Orthodox families who may choose to keep their children at home during the week, especially if one of them is immunocompromised (private and religious schools are currently open in Los Angeles County), the only difference between Friday and Saturday, in addition to eating more, is that there are no electronics to keep the kids amused on Shabbat. In fact, by the time Shabbat ends, some parents are ready to lick a door handle and end it all.

It’s a strange thing. The days flow in and out until Tuesday feels like Monday, Friday feels like Wednesday and Saturday feels like Thursday — without the electronic devices to keep you working or entertained. Sometimes, the days leading up to Shabbat feel less like a flow and more like a pack of playing cards stuck together with peanut butter. If Shabbat is supposed to be the queen of the week (the Kabbalists believe that as the seventh day of the week, Shabbat corresponds to the seventh attribute of G-d, which is royalty), that queen seems permanently stuck to a plebeian “six” or “eight” card.

My husband and I are very blessed that our children’s Jewish school reopened this fall. Because of this, we try to appreciate the time we get to spend with our kids on Saturday, without the noise of devices. But without guests, it just doesn’t feel like Shabbat.

Without guests, it just doesn’t feel like Shabbat.

Before the pandemic, we hosted Shabbat lunch every week without fail. In fact, that’s what I looked forward to throughout the week: Shabbat lunch with friends (and often, their kids, who entertained our kids). Thursday trips to the supermarket to shop for Shabbat meals was exciting and meaningful. What would my sister love for lunch? What would all the kids love for dessert?

For the past 11 months, with Shabbat guests out of the equation, I don’t even go to the supermarket on Thursdays. Instead, I scrap together whatever I’ve made throughout the week into something edible for Friday and Saturday. Without Shabbat guests, I don’t feel like cooking extra special food (if you’re my husband and you’re reading this, you and the kids are still very special, but I’m not bringing out the saffron or homemade sushi until there’s at least one guest at the table, even if it’s the exterminator).

Maybe it’s because my kids are so little (ages three and five) and don’t appreciate the difference between kabob and kooft (a wonderful Persian word for generic “crap”) or because my husband is eating much healthier, but I refuse to caramelize onions in an air fryer. Or maybe it’s always more fun to cook for guests than for your own immediate family. Either way, I just don’t feel like going all out, the way I used to.

Of course, I still try to elevate Shabbat. Last week, I cut up a sprig of parsley as a garnish for some stale pita bread I had bought in the middle of the week and served on Saturday.

I know I shouldn’t wait until after the pandemic to make Shabbat extra special, but I can’t help it. I love my family, but I miss our guests. We’re truly blessed to have an abundance of food every week, especially when so many Americans are suffering from food insecurity. But even overeating (or stress eating) is more fun with guests.

The truth is that I badly want Shabbat to be special. But amid a pandemic, I feel overloaded and lack the bandwidth to go that extra mile. I don’t even feel like spending a few minutes praying from my siddur or learning a little Torah. Instead, I either break up fights between the kids or sink into the couch and read that month’s issue of AAA Magazine. What’s new in the world of motor oil these days?

Before the pandemic, I used Shabbat as a time to catch up with my husband about the week. Now, there’s no catching up. I know exactly what he does all day because he works in the other room. And he knows exactly what I’ve been up to and, more importantly, who annoyed me that week.

One day, the guests will be back. Or at least, there’ll be one guest. It’ll start out small and grow exponentially until the whole table is filled. It’s like that famous line in “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, he will come.”

And then, there’ll be enough real plates and saffron-infused food to elevate not one, but ten Shabbats, and we’ll make “L’chaims!” and thank G-d for our bounty, while the kids (and their friends) trip over a heap of toys in the other room.

Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

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