Reflections on my First Shabbat

Published by The Oxford Student

One of the most important injunctions binding on me as a member of the Baha’i faith is to “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship”. It was with this in mind that on Friday night of 4th week, I attended my first Shabbat service and meal, hosted by the Oxford University Jewish Society. Friends old and new at JSoc couldn’t have been more welcoming, so this article goes out as a tribute to their hospitality.

My evening began at 7 with an hour-long service of psalms and prayers, sung in Hebrew. Transliterations of the text helped me to join in, and the tunes were surprisingly easy to pick up. Although the musical mode was often unfamiliar, there was something highly intuitive about which intervals would follow on from each other.

The music was democratic in other ways too. Oftentimes one or two congregants took to tapping out a beat against the back of their prayer books (imagine that at an Anglican eucharist!), and the service was led by an ordinary undergrad member of JSoc.

What I’ve always loved about the Jews is their ability to mix the reverent and the rowdy, and nowhere was that on better display than at the 8 o’clock Shabbat meal. The meal began with a rapidly chanted blessing of the wine (followed by a drinking of all the wine) that was as moving as it was merry and convivial.

Likewise, the blessing of the challah bread was taken seriously, but a couple of minutes later bits of the loaf were being thrown overarm from one side of the table to the other, to be dipped with gusto into some of the tastiest hummus I’ve ever eaten. Beforehand, the bread had been covered by a special cloth at the centre of the table … surrounded by Coke, Sprite, Smirnoff and cold beers.

Our dinner (chicken soup, followed by liberal helpings of stews, pickles, salads and vegetables) was taken at a leisurely pace, although there was never a dull moment in the dinner-table conversation. Seated as I was next to two liberal, anti-Zionist Jews, debate at our table about the recent unrest in the West Bank was pretty spirited.

The heterogeneity of opinions on show and the integrity of the discussion drove home to me how unjust and wrongheaded it is that Jews should be targeted here in the UK over problems in the West Bank and Gaza. A security guard was manning the entrance to the Jewish Centre when I first arrived, and the exterior windows were shrouded in bomb curtains.

One of the most touching elements of the service for me was the reading of the Aleinu prayer. The first of its two paragraphs has been the subject of some controversy. The Jewish community has self-censored it in the past – on the grounds that it is too exclusivist in its implied theology of salvation.

Nonetheless, what I took to be its most powerful theme in the English translation of the prayer was the voicing of a messianic hope for religious unity. “May You [God] reign over [everyone] soon and forever and always.” The prayer ends with the words: “Adonai [our Lord] will be Ruler over the whole Earth, and on that day, God will be One, and God’s name will be One.”

The prominence of this messianic sentiment in the Aleinu reminded me that the history of the Jews is also the history of my faith as a Baha’i: as a believer in the Prophets of the Torah and as a believer that in our era the hope for unity between the religions is capable of being realised.

After dinner was over, I left the Jewish Centre to the sound of a raucous Hebrew singalong getting started in a backroom, where congregants had retired to carry on feasting, laughing and drinking shots. My friend Nina tells me that such revelry often continues into the small hours.

A lot of the magic of the evening was due, I think, to the fact that for many of the attendees it marked the beginning of a day of rest – not just from work, but also from social media and emails and the risk of information overload. Far from dismissing the institution of the Sabbath as an outdated custom, we should celebrate the communal day of rest as long overdue a revival. In an era characterized by the fetishization of constant activity and the obsessive accumulation of new experiences, the Sabbath is more relevant than it ever has been.

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