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The Shabbat Primer

About Our Maximalist Approach

"Is it for me?" "Could I try it?" "Maybe I could do a little more?"

Everywhere today one senses a questioning, a longing in the Jewish community to return to its tradition. A growing number of Jewish enrichment seminars, baalei teshuva yeshivas, and yarmulkas at board of directors meetings attest to this desire. The New York Times Magazine (Sept. 30, 1984) reported on the mushrooming numbers and greater maturity of the 1980's "returnees" to Orthodoxy. Books on Jewish self-discovery, such as Paul Cowan's An Orphan in History and Lis Harris' Holy Days, attract surprisingly wide interest. Everywhere there are signs that thousands in this generation want to come home.

And they are succeeding. One of this book's co-authors, Nechoma, has herself met, taught, and counseled hundreds of Jews who were raised in families with very little Jewish awareness. Many of these Jews are now as Torah-observant as those born to families in which the tradition was never eroded.

How does a Jew go from non-observance to full observance? Judging from her experience, Nechoma believes that the change usually culminates years of yearning to be a complete Jew, and the new lifestyle undertaken, although seemingly more restrictive, brings a feeling of true peace and wholeness. At last there is no dichotomy between feeling like a Jew and acting like a Jew. Gone is the embarrassment about "what will they think?" Instead, the conviction grows that I am a Jew and I am going to live like one, without apologies or shame. When a person comes to this conclusion, he usually forms a new commitment toward fulfilling the halacha as well.


Against this background of an increasing desire among today's Jews for a fuller Jewish life we have written our book. On first leafing through it, you may think we are asking a great deal. You will probably find more halacha cited in these pages than in any other Shabbat guide for beginners you've read. Let us explain why.

Our book takes this approach because we make two assumptions the other guides don't make: we take you seriously, and we take halacha seriously. Taking you seriously means that we have faith in your sincerity of purpose and desire to grow in your Shabbat observance. Just as important, it means that we take you seriously as a Jew. We are not writing this book for "Orthodox people"; we are writing it for you.

By setting out the full demands of halacha (within reason), we avoid short-changing you. We are not prejudging how far you can go. What we try to do is give you an overview of what you need to create a satisfying traditional Shabbat. We want to present as wide-ranging and complete a guide as possible for both beginners and intermediates. We hope to give you a guide that you can grow with and not soon outgrow.

In striving for an appropriate level of completeness, however, we've tried to avoid discouraging the beginners. We urge you, again and again, not to let yourself feel overwhelmed. Each one of you can choose to take things at his own pace, beginning with the aspects of Shabbat observance closest to his heart and building from there.

Given that each person will begin with the mitzvot that draw him most, there is still a crucial point to be made: he should intend to build upon those mitzvot, doing more and more as soon as he can. The reason for this insistence on not standing still lies in the nature of halacha.

As we mentioned earlier, we take halacha seriously. That means that we view its prescribed actions and prohibitions, not as optional "customs and ceremonies," but as obligations for every Jewish life. We believe that the halacha (which in fact means "the way" or "the going," not merely "the law") was given to all the Jewish People, including you, wherever you stand now. Nobody, however pious, learned, and observant, has a monopoly on the halacha. But by the same token, to have full effect, halacha has to be freely accepted as obligatory by every Jew. Even if it's extremely unlikely that you'll ever actually perform a certain mitzva, you must still intend to fulfill it and see its performance as binding upon you.

In addition, the mitzvot are characterized by definite rules. For Shabbat to be Shabbat it is not enough to sing Jewish songs and serve cholent. It is misleading, as well as unfair, to give the impression that partial observance is sufficient. Shabbat must be observed both by carrying out the injunctions and by refraining from the prohibitions. Only then does it have its full impact upon the Jew.


While we're on the subject of halacha and its observance, we'd like to explain certain terms we use which may otherwise be misinterpreted. First, some terms we're allergic to: "orthodox" (or "Orthodox") and its even worse Israeli counterpart, "religious." Is a man who merely keeps up his membership in his parents' synagogue "Orthodox?" Is a man in a black coat with a long beard who is in shul davening because that's where his wife expects him to be "religious?" On the other hand, some as yet "unaffiliated" Jews may be very religious in their orientation. Although we find these adjectives sloppy and even deceptive, we sometimes bow to common usage and employ them. We much prefer, however, the more precise adjectives used by the "Orthodox" world itself, such as "Torah-observant," "shomer Shabbat" (keeping the laws of Shabbat), and "shomer mitzvot" (keeping the mitzvot). In the same vein, when we say, "Ask your local rabbi," we mean a fully Torah-observant rabbi. His decades of studying and living in the world of the Torah make him the most trustworthy guide for you.


And now, in conclusion, we want to express our hopes for you and this book. To the veteran Shabbat observers among our readers, we hope this book will clarify and enrich your present practices. To the many beginners, we hope it will ease your first steps. And to the thousands who are still hesitating before the door, we hope this book will encourage you to come in and feel at home.

Finally, since The Shabbat Primer is far from a complete guide to Shabbat observance, we send a blessing that you outgrow it as quickly as possible - and press on!

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Ner Nechoma
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