Mudhouse Sabbathby Lauren F. Winner
In her groundbreaking book, Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner described her path from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity. Now, with characteristic wit, intellectual sharpness, and passion for authenticity, Winner illuminates eleven spiritual lessons that Judaism taught her. By reflecting deeply on these religious practices and how they shape and inform her faith as a Christian, Winner provides a fascinating guide for all Christians seeking to enrich their spiritual lives through a deeper understanding of Judaism.
- Paraclete Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.80(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
Recently, at a used bookstore, I came across Nan Fink's memoir Stranger in the Midst, the story of her conversion to Judaism. She describes the preparations she and her soon-to-be-husband made for Shabbat:
On Friday afternoon, at the very last minute, we'd rush home, stopping at the grocery to pick up supplies. Flying into the kitchen we'd cook ahead for the next twenty-four hours. Soup and salad, baked chicken, yams and applesauce for dinner, and vegetable cholent or lasagna for the next day's lunch. Sometimes I'd think how strange it was to be in such a frenzy to get ready for a day of rest.
Shabbat preparations had their own rhythm, and once the table was set and the house straightened, the pace began to slow. "It's your turn first in the shower," I'd call to Michael. "Okay, but it's getting late," he'd answer, concerned about starting Shabbat at sunset.
In the bathroom I'd linger at the mirror, examining myself, stroking the little lines on my face, taking as much time as I could to settle into a mood of quietness. When I joined Michael and his son for the lighting of the candles, the whole house seemed transformed. Papers and books were neatly piled, flowers stood in a vase on the table, and the golden light of the setting sun filled the room. . . .
Shabbat is like nothing else. Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away. A feeling of joy appears. The smallest object, a leaf or a spoon, shimmers in a soft light, and the heart opens. Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty.
I was sitting with a cup of hot chai in a red velvet chair at the Mudhouse, a coffee shop in Charlottesville, when I read that passage. It was a Sunday afternoon. I had attended church in the morning, then cleaned out my car, then read Those Can-Do Pigs with my friend's two-year-old twins, and eventually wended my way down to the Mudhouse for chai and a half hour with a good book. It was not an ordinary workday, and I did feel somewhat more relaxed than I would on Monday morning. But it was not Shabbat. Nan Fink nailed it: Shabbat is like nothing else. And Shabbat is, without question, the piece of Judaism I miss the most.
It is also the piece I should most easily be able to keep. A yearning to, say, observe the Jewish new year, or a desire to hear the Torah chanted in Hebrew: Those things might be harder to incorporate into a Christian life. But the Sabbath! The Sabbath is a basic unit of Christian time, a day the Church, too, tries to devote to reverence of God and rest from toil. And yet here a Sunday afternoon finds me sitting in a coffee shop, spending money, scribbling in the margins of my book, very much in "time as we know it," not at all sure that I have opened my heart in any particular way.
God first commands the Sabbath to the Jewish people in Exodus, with the initial revelation of the Ten Commandments, and then again in Deuteronomy. The two iterations are similar, though not identical. In Exodus God says, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," whereas in Deuteronomy He enjoins us to "observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy." Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, God elaborates upon this simple instruction, noting in Exodus 35, for example, that no fire should be kindled on Shabbat, and in Isaiah 66 that on the Sabbath, the faithful should "come to worship before me."
There are, in Judaism, two types of commandments (mitzvot): the mitzvot asei, or the "Thou shalts," and the mitzvot lo ta'aseh, or the "Thou shalt nots." Sabbath observance comprises both. You are commanded, principally, to be joyful and restful on Shabbat, to hold great feasts, sing happy hymns, dress in your finest. Married couples even get rabbinical brownie points for having sex on the Sabbath.
And then, of course, are the mitzvot lo ta'aseh. The cornerstone of Jewish Sabbath observance is the prohibition of work in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5: "You shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you." Over time, the rabbis teased out of the text just what the prohibition on work meant, first identifying thirty-nine categories of activities to be avoided on Shabbat, and then fleshing out the implications of those thirty-nine (if one is not to light a fire, for example, one also ought not handle matches or kindling).
It's easy to look at the Jewish Sabbath as a long list of thou shalt nots: Don't turn on lights; don't drive; don't cook; don't carry a pair of scissors anywhere at all (for if you carry them you might be tempted to use them, and cutting is also forbidden on Shabbat); it's okay to carry a stone or a sweater or a scarf, but only inside your own house, not out onto the street and then into the house of another; don't plan for the week ahead; don't write a sonnet or a sestina or a haiku; don't even copy down a recipe; and while you are allowed to sing, you shouldn't play a musical instrument, and of course you mustn't turn on a radio or a record player. What all this boils down to (and boiling is another thing you cannot do on Shabbat) is do not create. Do not create a casserole or a Valentine card or a symphony or a pot of coffee. Do not create anything at all, for one of the things the Sabbath reprises is God's rest after He finished creating.
One of the finest explanations I know of the Orthodox Sabbath comes from Lis Harris's Holy Days, a journalistic ethnography of a Hasidic family in Crown Heights, New York. Harris, a secular Jew, has come to Crown Heights to spend Shabbat with the Konigsbergs. She is perplexed, and a little annoyed, by all the restrictions. Over dinner, she asks her hosts why God cares whether or not she microwaves a frozen dinner on Friday night. "What happens when we stop working and controlling nature?" Moishe Konigsberg responds. "When we don't operate machines, or pick flowers, or pluck fish from the sea? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God's world."
I remember, from my Jewish days, the language we used to name the Sabbath. We spoke of the day as Shabbat haMalka, the Sabbath Queen, and we sang hymns of praise on Friday night that welcomed the Sabbath as a bride. It is something of this reverence, and this celebration, that is missing from my Sabbaths now.
I remember the end of Shabbat, Saturday night. By the time Saturday night rolls around, part of you is eager to hop in your car and race to a movie, go out dancing, sip a late-night espresso. But still, even after a full day of Shabbat rest and even Shabbat toe-tapping boredom (because, let's face it, occasionally Shabbat gets dull), even then you are sad to see Shabbat go. You mark the end of Shabbat with a ceremony called havdalah, which comes from the Hebrew verb meaning "to separate," in this case separating Shabbat from the week. havdalah involves a number of ritual objects–wine for tasting, and a braided candle for lighting, and a box of fragrant spices (cloves, often, and cinnamon), and you pass around the spice box because smelling the sweet spices comforts you a little, you who are sad that Shabbat has ended. One of the reasons you are sad is this: Judaism speaks of a neshamah yeteirah, an extra soul that comes to dwell in you on the Sabbath but departs once the week begins.
I remember that, for Jews, the Sabbath shapes all the rhythms of calendar and time; the entire week points toward Shabbat. The rabbis, who are always interested in the subtleties of Torah prose, puzzled over the two different versions of the Sabbath commandment. Why, in Exodus, does God tell us to remember the Sabbath, whereas in Deuteronomy He instructs observance of the Sabbath? One story the rabbis tell about the difference between remembrance and observance has to do with ordering time. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday are caught up in remembering the preceding Shabbat, while Wednesday through Friday are devoted to preparing for the next Shabbat.
What, really, was wrong with my Mudhouse Sabbath? After all, I did spend Sunday morning in church. And I wasn't working that afternoon, not exactly.
A fine few hours, except that my Sunday was more an afternoon off than a Sabbath. It was an add-on to a busy week, not the fundamental unit around which I organized my life. The Hebrew word for holy means, literally, "set apart." In failing to live a Sabbath truly distinct from weekly time, I had violated a most basic command: to keep the Sabbath holy.
I am not suggesting that Christians embrace the strict regulations of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. Indeed, the New Testament unambiguously inaugurates a new understanding of Shabbat. In his epistles, Paul makes clear that the Sabbath, like other external signs of piety, is insufficient for salvation. As he writes in his letter to the Colossians, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you . . . with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." And Jesus, when rebuked by the Pharisees for plucking grain from a field on Shabbat, criticizes those who would make a fetish of Sabbath observance, insisting that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
But there is something, in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and, perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God.
Pick up any glossy women's magazine from the last few years and you'll see what I mean. The Sabbath has come back into fashion, even among the most secular Americans, but the Sabbath we now embrace is a curious one. Articles abound extolling the virtues of treating yourself to a day of rest, a relaxing and leisurely visit to the spa, an extra-long bubble bath, and a glass of Chardonnay. Take a day off, the magazines urge their harried readers. Rest.
There might be something to celebrate in this revival of Sabbath, but it seems to me that there are at least two flaws in the reasoning. First is what we might call capitalism's justification for Sabbath rest: resting one day a week makes you more productive during the other six. Or, as my father has often told me, I'll get more done working eleven months a year than twelve. And while that may be true, rest for the sake of future productivity is at odds with the spirit of Shabbat.
We could call the second problem with the current Sabbath vogue the fallacy of the direct object. Whom is the contemporary Sabbath designed to honor? Whom does it benefit? Why, the bubble-bath taker herself, of course! The Bible suggests something different. In observing the Sabbath, one is both giving a gift to God and imitating Him. Exodus and Deuteronomy make this clear when they say, "Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God." To the Lord your God.
Christianity, of course, has a long tradition of Sabbath observance, so a revitalized Sabbath is more a reclaiming of the Christian birthright than the self-conscious adoption of something Jewish. Jesus observed Shabbat, even as He challenged the specifics of Mosaic Sabbath law; and since at least the year 321, when Constantine declared Sunday as Sabbath for all his empire, Christians have understood the Sabbath as a day for rest, communal worship, and celebration. New England Puritans summed up their thoughts about Sunday thus: "Good Sabbaths make good Christians."
For Christians, the Sabbath has an added dimension: It commemorates not only God's resting from Creation, but also God's Resurrection. As eighteenth-century Pietist Johann Friedrich Starck put it, "Under the New Testament, Christians also consecrate one day out of seven, Sunday, to God, that being the day on which Christ rose from the dead, and the Holy Spirit was poured out." (Starck encouraged readers even to begin their Sabbath practices on Saturday evening, urging the Christian to "disentangle his mind from worldly cares and troubles . . . Prepare himself for the coming Sunday with prayer, . . .[and] Retire to rest betimes," so as to be punctual and sprightly at church the next morning.)
As for me, I am starting small. I have joined a Bible study that meets Sundays at five, a bookend to my day that helps me live into Shabbat–there's not enough time between church and Bible study to pull out my laptop and start working, so instead I try to have a leisurely lunch with friends from church. I have forsworn Sunday shopping (a bigger sacrifice than you may realize), and I sometimes join my friend Ginger on her afternoon visits to church shut-ins. Sometimes before Bible study, you will find me with the twins and the can-do pigs, and sometimes still you will find me at the Mudhouse. Not much, when compared to the dramatic cessations of the Orthodox Shabbat; but still, the first arcs of a return to Sabbath.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
Winner writes with wit and charm that make her readers fall in love with her at once. I loved Girl Meets God, and I appreciate the rare perspective she bringd to the Christian faith. Mudhouse Sabbath has not only been useful for me in my own life, but has also challenged me to think a little differently. It was like a breath of fresh air that I was easily able to pass along to others.
To say that Lauren Winner's previous book, Girl Meets God, changed my life...well, it would be true, if dramatic. When I found Mudhouse Sabbath on the shelf, I was delighted. I took it home that very day. It's the kind of book from which I read portions aloud to friends over the phone: and they notably DIDN'T sigh and wonder when I'd be done. Am I a Christian? Yes. Do I happen to have a life-long interest in Jews and the Jewish roots of my faith? Yes. But never mind that. The fact is that Winner's writing is graceful, evocative, real, funny, and searching. Pick up this book. While you're at it, pick up Girl Meets God. Or come to my store in Indiana, and I'll tell you all about both of them!
This book is an easy read highlighting traditional Jewish customs and suggesting ways in which they might be integrated into the Christian community's daily life and customs. Focus is on similarities and mutual respect - for people with a "teachable spirit".
Packed with history, Mudhouse Sabbath is an honest, cleverly written account of the shared history of Jews and Christians...and one of how Christians could benefit from including meaningful Jewish traditions in their worship. I know, I know, it sounds like a heavy theology read, but I promise you that it is just as entertaining as it is instructive. Makes you think you could really be friends with this Lauren Winner woman!
I trueley find this book offensive, and somewhat tries to Christian-ize Jewish practices.