Much of what Sabbath-observant Jews do during Shabbat takes place outside the orbit of home and family. As much as Shabbat may be an opportunity for nuclear families to spend time together, it is also a chance to enjoy the company of extended family and community in a relaxed atmosphere. During the work week, considerations of profit or advancement often dictate with whom we spend our time; on Shabbat, we can choose for ourselves with whom to spend our time.
The synagogue is the focus of much of the public observance of Shabbat. A ceremony to welcome Shabbat precedes the formal evening service on Friday nights. That service is known as Kabbalat Shabbat–literally, "Welcoming the Sabbath"–and comprises several Psalms and Lekha Dodi, a popular liturgical poem from the 16th century. It and indeed all Shabbat services are conducted at a more relaxed pace and in a richer musical mode than the weekday liturgy.
Most often the worshippers disperse to private homes for dinner, and it is common for individuals and families to have dinner guests. Some people try to open their Shabbat tables to out-of-towners they just then met at synagogue, visitors who may be in the community for a weekend, on vacation or business. In many communities, the evening prayers are followed on occasion by a communal meal at the synagogue. Some synagogues regularly put off their Shabbat evening service until after the dinner hour and follow it with unprogrammed socializing over light refreshments, often calling this event oneg Shabbat, the traditional term for "the pleasure (or delight) of Shabbat."
Synagogue worship continues on Saturday. Shabbat morning services usually begin at a later hour than is common on workdays, when participants commonly proceed from the synagogue to their workplaces. The liturgy is extended in several ways, most notably by the public recitation of a sizeable selection from the Torah and a short extra reading (Haftarah) from one of the Bible’s prophetic books. Except in most Reform and Reconstructionist communities, an "additional service" (Musaf) is added, in commemoration of the Shabbat sacrifice in the ancient Temple.
At many synagogues, services are followed on some occasions or every week by a communal Kiddush ("sanctification" of Shabbat)–a very short liturgy recited over wine or another beverage–followed by light refreshments. Some communities have a communal lunch at the synagogue following Kiddush.
Minhah, the afternoon service, is enriched on Shabbat as well–this time by a public Torah reading that offers a first taste of the following week’s Torah portion and by reciting the prayers in a wistful musical mode especial to that one weekly occasion. After dark, a weekday evening service is recited in the synagogue, most often followed by a public recitation of Havdalah, the liturgy that ends the Sabbath.
Torah study is one of the many other traditional Shabbat activities that emphasize the value of doing things whose benefit is intrinsic and not instrumental. Friends may gather for peer-led learning, or more formal classes may take place in synagogues or homes at any hour of Shabbat.
In traditionally observant communities, a number of Shabbat restrictions affect how a person interacts with others: Travel by conveyance is banned, for example, and there are even limits on how far one can walk outside the limits of a city or town into unpopulated territory.
While such restrictions serve to bolster one’s ties to the immediate community, there is one rule that is so often felt to be burdensome that rabbinic law worked out a way to circumvent it. That restriction is the ban on carrying anything in public, even a small child unable to move about alone. Specifically, the ban prohibits moving objects from public to private property or between one private domain and another, or even a distance of four cubits (about 2 meters) on public property.
To address this problem, a symbolic enclosure called an eruv may be created, which, by means of a legal technicality, turns a public domain or multiple private ones into one large private domain, thereby enabling people to carry things about. Whole neighborhoods (and in Israel, entire towns and cities) are frequently outfitted with an eruv, making it possible for families with babies and toddlers to bring them to synagogue or elsewhere outside their own homes. This enables a parent or other caregiver to enjoy the same important Shabbat social opportunities as everyone else.
Rabbinic literature abounds in statements praising the practice of hospitality on behalf of travelers and indigents. One even calls it "greater than welcoming the Divine Presence [Sh’khinah]."
A midrash presents the biblical patriarch Abraham as the paragon of hospitality, because of his reception of wayfarers in Genesis 18. His position at the entrance of his tent in the midday heat is interpreted as a proactive seeking out of passing travelers. Other elements of the story, too, contribute to Abraham’s reputation: his eagerness, his largesse, and his insistence on seeing his guests off as they departed.
The residents of Jerusalem, too, are portrayed in midrashic literature as excelling in this virtue. When the Holy Temple still stood in Jerusalem, that city was the destination of pilgrims from throughout the Land of Israel at the three harvest festivals. The rabbinic storytellers of late antiquity relate that Jerusalem’s householders opened their homes for free to those visitors. "No person ever remarked to another, ‘I couldn’t find a bed to sleep on in Jerusalem.’ No person ever remarked to another, ‘Jerusalem is too small [i.e., crowded] for me to be able to stay over there’" (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33).
Not only are food and lodging to be provided for passing travelers, but they must be accommodated graciously. The statement of the early sage Shammai that one should "greet each person with a cheerful facial expression" (Mishnah Avot 1:15) is understood midrashically (in Avot De-Rabbi Natan 13) as an admonition to hosts not to provide for their guests amply but angrily. Better, teaches the midrash, to offer a guest but a little in a gracious tone than large portions obviously proffered grudgingly.
At the beginning of a traditional Passover seder, Jews recite a formulaic declaration of an "open house" policy of hospitality: "Let all who are hard-pressed come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share the Passover sacrifice." This statement is an expansion of what the third-century Babylonian sage Rav Huna was known to make every time he sat down to a meal: "Let all who are in need come and eat!" (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 20b)
Some Jewish communities of the past institutionalized the practice of offering hospitality to wayfarers by establishing a furnished home for such temporary guests. Others offered them lodging in the communal synagogue. The Diaspora tradition of reciting in the synagogue the kiddush prayer at the beginning of a Shabbat or holiday evening–a prayer usually offered where the festive meal is eaten–has its origins in that use of the community’s gathering space.
To this day, it is a hallmark of many Jewish communities that unfamiliar participants in synagogue worship, especially on Shabbat or holidays, are invited to local people’s homes for a meal–and, if arrangements are made in advance, frequently for lodging as well.
Traditional mandates extend to the guest as well. Guests should avoid causing hosts and hostesses extra work. They should accede to their host’s or hostess’s requests. A guest should not bring along another, uninvited guest. If guest and host(ess) are entering the home together, the guest should defer to the host. Leaving together, a guest should exit before the host(ess).
The second-century rabbinic sage Shim’on Ben Zoma couched his directive to guests in terms of a contrast between the responses of a two types of guests. The one to be emulated feels gratitude, saying "Look how much this householder has done for me! He has brought me so much meat [i.e., fine, expensive food]! How many cakes he has set before me! And all that he has done, he has done just for my benefit." The unsavory guest, receiving the same treatment, says "What has this householder done for me, after all? I’ve eaten one serving of bread. I’ve eaten one slice of meat. I’ve drunk one cup of beverage. And anyway, the work was all done for the [host] family, anyway." (Genesis Rabba 52) One presumes that the two guest’s different attitudes will find expression, however subtle, bringing host or hostess either pride or consternation, as well as reflecting on the guest’s own character.
It is no accident that the Jewish people call themselves "Am Yisrael"–"the people of Israel"– rather than "Dat Yisrael," or"the religion of Israel." A sense of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews. Accordingly, the central experience of Jewish history–the only event that demands an annual retelling–is the exodus from Egypt. Though wrapped up in an encounter with divinity, the exodus was primarily an experience of national liberation, rather than a moment of religious awakening.
On the everyday level, this focus on peoplehood is translated into an emphasis on the community as the primary organizing structure of Jewish life. Wherever Jews have lived, they have built synagogues, established communal organizations, and created systems of communal governance.
What Makes Community?
One Talmudic text offers a working definition of the concept of community in Jewish life:
"A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add: a butcher); and a teacher of children" (Sanhedrin 17b).
In other words, in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all of its members’ spiritual and physical needs. The presence of a beit din helps to protect residents from falling victim to crime. A tzedakah fund under appropriate supervision aids community members who have fallen into poverty.
A synagogue offers a place for prayer, as well as for communal gatherings. The bathhouse, bathroom, doctor, craftsperson, blood-letter and butcher provide for the physical needs of residents. The teacher ensures that the next generation is versed in Jewish tradition and prepared eventually to assume leadership of the community.
The sense that the community is responsible for the physical and communal needs of its members has manifested itself in different ways throughout Jewish history. In late antiquity and in the medieval period, many Jewish communities were semi-autonomous. Though ultimately subject to the laws of the place in which they lived, these communities governed themselves and cared for the needs of their members. Even as these semi-autonomous local authorities have disappeared, many Jewish communities to this day maintain a beit dinthat arbitrates disputes between members of the community.
Virtually every Jewish community has established charitable organizations that help poor members of the community. The first Jewish immigrants to the United States set up institutions such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Hebrew Free Loan Society, aimed at assisting newer immigrants to gain a foothold in their new country. These organizations, and others like them, continue to operate today.
Since at least the first century, much of Jewish life has focused around the synagogues. In addition to being places of prayer, synagogues are the site of lifecycle events celebrating births, weddings, and b’nai mitzvah. The communities that form around synagogues generally take care of the members of that community. Community members may prepare meals for those sitting shiva, visit members who are ill, and join in one another’s life cycle events.
Another major institution in most Jewish communities is the mikveh, a ritual bath in which conversions take place, and in which women traditionally immerse after menstruation. Many people also immerse in the mikveh before their weddings, prior to Yom Kippur, and, in some communities, on Friday afternoons before Shabbat. In contemporary times, the mikveh has been used for rituals of healing after sexual abuse, miscarriage, and divorce. The mikveh is considered so central to the life of a community that many Jewish legal scholars mandate constructing a mikveh even before building a synagogue.
In contemporary times, Jewish communities have sprung up around other types of institutions, including Jewish Community Centers, schools, camps, local Federations, and Jewish non-profit organizations. In all of these cases, a building or organization serves as the initial point of contact for a group of people who then begin caring for each other and taking care of one another’s needs.
An Obligation, Not An Option
Jewish texts treat participation in communal affairs not as an option, but as a religious obligation. One debate among a number of the early Talmudic commentators and codifiers of Jewish law concerns the question of whether one who is occupied with taking care of a communal need must stop to pray. At the root of this discussion is the legal principle that "one who is occupied with one mitzvah (religious obligation)is exempt from other mitzvot."
If caring for the needs of the community can be defined as a mitzvah, then a person involved in such work will be exempt from other pressing mitzvot, such as prayer. While early religious scholars take various positions on this issue, one modern authority, the Mishnah Berurah (Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, 1839-1933) virtually closes the question by declaring,"Most later authorities have ruled [that one does not need to stop to pray]" (Orah Hayim 93:4).
Even more strikingly, one midrash likens removing oneself from the community to destroying the world. According to this source:
"’With justice, a king sustains the earth, but a fraudulent (terumot) person destroys it.’ (Proverbs 29) [What does this verse mean?] With the justice that the king does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one makes oneself like terumah (portion of produce that is set aside as an offering), set aside in the corner of the house, and says, ‘Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],’ this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of ‘the fraudulent person destroys [the world].’
"There is a story about Rav Assi, that when he was dying, his nephew entered and found him crying. He said to him, ‘Why are you crying? Is there any Torah that you did not study and teach to others? Look–your students sit before you. Are there any acts of lovingkindness that you did not do? Furthermore, despite your stature, [you humbled yourself and] you stayed far from disputes and did not allow yourself to be appointed over the affairs of the community.’
"Rav Assi replied, ‘My son, this is why I am crying. What if I am asked to account for the fact that I was able to arbitrate disputes among the people of Israel and did not?’ [This is the meaning of] ‘the fraudulent person destroys [the world]’" (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim 2).
Though the precise structure of Jewish communities has changed according to place, time and current interests, membership in a Jewish community has always demanded a sense of shared destiny, manifested in the obligation to care for other members of the community, as well as in the joy of partaking in others’ celebrations.