Shabbat comes on gradually and slowly and with total commitment in Jerusalem, especially in the midst of summer when the days are long, candle lighting time is late, and Friday afternoon has been unusually warm.
That’s what I experienced this summer when I visited my youngest son who, with his wife and children, rented an apartment for two months in Jerusalem. Daniel has been the senior rabbi at Temple Concord in Syracuse, New Yorkw for seven years; and this summer he enjoyed a two-month sabbatical, rented an apartment in the German Colony section of old Jerusalem, enrolled in the Hartman Institute for their summer course for rabbis of all denominations, and took his wife and three children to Israel to live as Israelis do.
I had the joy of visiting them for two weeks in early August.
This was my sixth trip to Israel, but it was quite different from the others since I was actually living in the city, going to the grocery store with my family, going to shul on Saturday morning at the synagogue that was just up the hill and around the corner, walking everywhere until I got so tired I had to take a taxi, pushing my way through the “shuk,” the open air market, buying the normal household items, dressing like all the others except for open sandals, and acting like all the other Israelis.
But the one event that made the biggest impression on me was the way the approach of Erev Shabbat seems to effortlessly transform the bustling city of Jerusalem into the quiet city of Jerusalem on Erev Shabbat.
Daniel and his family live on a residential street filled with two- and three-story apartment buildings. Vehicles are parallel parked on the curb of the one-way street. During a normal business day, the traffic is constant and heavy with cars of all types, taxis and trucks speeding down the hill, all seeming to have little regard for the pedestrians walking on the narrow sidewalks on both sides of the street.
About three in the afternoon on Friday the traffic begins to get lighter. By four, there are just a few taxis and cars. And by half past five, there are almost no vehicles on the street, no cars, no trucks, but now and then a tour bus.
It was so quiet on the street on Erev Shabbat and all day on Shabbat where Daniel lived that his two sons, ages seven and eight, could play in the middle of the street and throw a small football back and forth without worrying about traffic.
Men in black pants, white shirts and black hats were walking quickly from the Shuk to their homes carrying plastic bags which I could see were filled with two challahs. One baker in the Shuk, in honor of the forthcoming Olympics, baked challahs in large circles, like the Olympic symbol, and these seemed to be popular items.
But it was the quiet, the overall stillness that touched me. Nothing was moving except men and a few women, walking to one of the dozens of Jerusalem synagogues for Kabbalat Shabbat services.
The Kabbalat service originated in Tzevat, Israel, only a few hundred years ago, which makes it rather new in Jewish customs. Its short. It’s all Psalms. The melodies touch the heart of everyone participating. And in North America, few words are spoken, but they are both in Hebrew and in English, at least in the non-traditional places of worship.
The first Shabbat that I was in Israel on this trip, we walked… and to me it seemed to be a long walk… to one of the two Reform Synagogues in Jerusalem. Both the rabbi and the cantor were out of town; but when the time came to start, a woman stood up, in front of the bemah, opened a book, and began to sing the opening Psalm. The congregation joined in the song. Nothing was said.
This continued through each of the Psalms in the service. After each, there was a brief pause, just enough to turn the page of the Siddur, and then the next melody began. This went on for about a half hour.
When it was over, a man who seemed to be the president of the synagogue, rose, made a few announcements, half in Hebrew and half in English, and every one said “Shabbat Shalom” to each other and they all left.
Nothing else was said or done.
On my second Erev Shabbat in Israel we went to the Kabballat Shabbat service held at the old train station and out in the open. Overhead, a large white canopy covered most of the seats keeping the late afternoon but still really warm sun at bay.
The area seemed filled with non-religious types, though many wore kipot. Everyone was seated shoulder-to-shoulder on folding plastic chairs. Behind the seats, vendors were selling soft drinks and beer and a little bit of everything else. Shabbat had not yet arrived.
In front of all this was a stage filled with sound equipment and a musical group, two guitars, a vocalist, a percussionist, a musician playing all the reed instruments and a keyboard player.
They began with the Psalms in the usual order as set forth in a traditional prayer books; but each musical number took at least five to ten minutes or more to play. No words were uttered except when there was singing. The music was half that of a rock band.
From time to time, one of the vocalists seemed to switch back to a traditional melody, but only a musician with a fine ear could distinguish the new from the old.
Mid-way through the Kabbalat Service, everyone in the audience started to dance, forming a big circle going right to left around the large seated area. Everyone seemed to join arms in that dance.
After the Psalms of the Kabbalat Service, there were a few announcements and everyone picked up in their own area, stacked their chairs, and began walking home.
Shabbat morning we went to the small orthodox shul nearest us. The boys played catch in the middle of the street with complete safety. Few cars or taxis drove down the street.
Everything was quiet. Everything was closed. Families were walking to Shul. Couples were taking walks.
Shabbat had come. Shabbat in Jerusalem with all of its calm and quietness.
Shabbat in Jerusalem.