July 15, 2019

Repetition Is Practical, Repetition Is Spiritual

Friday afternoon, midwinter. Running crosstown from the office to Fairway, I fill my basket with fresh salmon, those fancy crackers that you buy only when you’re having company, two loaves of braided challah and a few bottles of wine. Heading down to the subway, I calculate. Guests arrive at 6 p.m. If I can get home by 4:30, I can cook the fish, toss the greens, put out the cheese and crackers, and stick the challah in the oven for a few minutes so the apartment smells like freshly baked bread. I got this.

The trains are delayed. A car at this hour will take even longer. By the time I get to my apartment, it’s after 5. Where are my keys? Where. Are. My. Keys? I dump the contents of my purse. No keys. I pat down my entire body. No keys. It’s 5:45. I do not got this.

Defeated, I do what must be done, and line the hall outside my door with wine, cheese, bread, dips. At 6:15 my guests arrive and we sit, backs to the wall, four on each side. I share blessings of gratitude for the wine and bread. We pass cheese and hummus and tapenade. We swig wine gingerly then generously from the bottle. As my neighbors start to come home, our Hallway Shabbat grows. When the locksmith finally arrives at 8:30, no one moves. I got this!

You might think because I’m a rabbi that I am a Shabbat dinner host extraordinaire. You would be wrong. For most of my adult life, the practice felt like way too much. Who has the time? Who has the money? I don’t know what to cook for myself let alone seven other people, and entertaining guests is nerve-racking. Who to invite? What to talk about? Where to sit?

I hosted my first Shabbat dinner in January 2015, about six months into my work as the rabbi at OneTable, an organization that supports emerging adults to host Friday night Shabbat experiences. Distilled to its essence, I realized, Shabbat is simple: 1) end your week with intention, 2) unplug from the week that was and recharge for the week that will be, and 3) do it with good food, good wine and good people. 

In short, Shabbat is good for you. But it’s not intuitive.

In short, Shabbat is good for you. But it’s not intuitive. And although it might be simple, it’s not easy given the demands of the workweek. That’s why I love working at OneTable. We’re a startup designed to inspire young people to become the producers of their own Shabbat experiences and empower them to take the leap to I got this.

Judaism has never been something that someone else can do for you. It’s DIY to the core. But becoming a confident and competent host doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. Hosting a “failure” dinner like Hallway Shabbat didn’t turn me off to hosting; it helped recalibrate what “success” actually means. If this practice happens every week, I can just … try again.

Adam Neumann, co-founder and CEO of WeWork, recently celebrated Shabbat for the first time, and spoke about his experience at an annual dinner hosted by the UJA-Federation of New York. “The most amazing thing that happened to me,” he said. “The next day … I was looking at everyone around me and I can tell that we’re all people and we’re all in this together. And for the whole week, I was feeling really good. Until about Thursday, when [negative] thoughts started coming back again, and I was judging again. And I said, ‘Wow, this Shabbat thing is amazing, but it only lasts for about five days. You gotta do it again.’ ”

Neumann’s words immediately reminded me of Hallway Shabbat. That was only the second Shabbat dinner I had ever hosted. It wasn’t perfect, but it was memorable. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me confidence. If I can host dinner in a hallway, surely I can host in my actual apartment. If I can welcome neighbors passing by, surely I can open my table to new guests. And a few weeks later, I did.

Part of the need for repetition is practical; ritual and hospitality take time to learn and practice to master. This lesson echoes the origins of Shabbat in Jewish tradition. The seven-day evolution of the world described in the Bible is not meant to be understood as a single creative act. This rest is explicitly tied to the creative process that necessitates it, not only to the work that we have done, but to the work we must continue to do. Our human imperfections are built into the process. Didn’t get it quite right this week? Another Shabbat is just around the corner. 

But the need for repetition transcends the practical. Repetition is spiritual. As Neumann describes, by Thursday the glow of the last Shabbat seems to wear off. A beautiful passage in the Talmud (tractate Shabbat 113b) reminds us that the workweek is a grind. We lose a little bit of our inner light — the ability to be our best and see the best in others — every day. Shabbat replenishes us. As the Talmud teaches, the reflection of light in our Shabbat wine restores the light in our eyes. Who might we be in the world, and what might we see, if we make it a practice to restore that light?

You might think that I am a Shabbat dinner host extraordinaire. You would be right. And it’s not because I’m a rabbi. It’s because I’ve developed a skill set that comes with practice after four years and counting as a guest and host, from apartment hallways in New York to mountain campsites in Colorado. I have grown in confidence and competence. Shabbat has become the spiritual practice that I want to share no matter where I am or who I’m with. Yes, I sometimes miss a week or two. Yes, I sometimes drop appetizers, burn dishes, and seat introverts next to That One Friend who won’t shut up. It’s all part of the creative process. But at the end of the day, I’ve got intention, time to unplug and recharge, and good food, good wine and good people. Whether it’s this Friday or next, I’ve got Shabbat, and so do you.

Jessica Minnen is the resident rabbi and director of programs at OneTable.