What two rabbis taught me about the sabbath

During an interfaith gathering, Ashley Brown was introduced to sabbath in a new way.

Photo by Devin Kleu on Unsplash

When I think of the Sabbath, I picture Sunday memories of my Christian childhood in Greenville, South Carolina. I can see my little white socks, freshly bleached. I can feel the sweat pooling under my patent leather shoes in the summer heat. I can smell the Crockpot pot roast that my mother had prepped early that morning. I can feel the hard wooden pews pressed against my back as I waited for the long sermon to be over.

I’ve always been unaware, and frankly uncurious, about what the Sabbath might look like to other faiths until I spent a day of rest with two rabbis at an interfaith peace training summit for faith leaders held at Rose Castle in Carlisle, England.

Rabbi Dr. Lindsey Simmons and Rabbi David Hazan leading Shabbat. Photo contributed.

We were an unusual group comprised of a Quaker seminarian, a Buddhist prison rights activist, two Methodist seminarians, an ecology theologian, an Asian Pacific Theology Christian scholar, several non-denominational Christians, two Episcopalians, two Anglicans, two Muslims (one on track to become an imam, the other a mediator and reconciler), an Ashkenazi rabbi and antiquities scholar, and a Sephardic rabbi. Despite the religious differences, we genuinely wanted to learn from each other’s faith perspectives.

During our time together, my Jewish peers taught us their practice of Shabbat. My own sabbath practice had gotten sloppy, and instead of engaging in worship, I hid from the world, devolving into a semi-hermitage on Sundays without any spiritual meaning or resets. Sabbath with two Rabbis was fascinating. They shared the comparisons on Sabbath keeping between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic traditions — the former ethnic community has roots in Spain, Portugal and North Africa and the latter has roots in Germany. Yet they both remained wholly rooted in the central theme of pure, uninterrupted rest.

Seventy-seven percent of the Bible is Old Testament, meaning that 77% of Christian’s holy, sacred Scriptures are Hebrew texts. It could be argued, however, that 100% of our Scripture is tied to Judaism as the Gospels and epistles are all based around the perspectives of Jewish people, Jewish culture and Jewish life.

My rabbinical friends taught me how they practice Shabbat through a sunset devotion on Friday evening. We looked up the exact time the sun set, waiting until evening truly began. Then, Lindsey blessed the challah she had made earlier in the day. My friend David, the Sephardi rabbi, recited from the Torah. We broke bread and tucked in for the night to recover from a week of emotionally strenuous work of interfaith dialogue.

Rabbi David Hazan leading Shabbat. Photo contributed.

The following Saturday, we gathered for a session on scriptural reasoning at Cambridge University. Scriptural reasoning is a practice in which the three Abrahamic faiths respectfully study passages from their sacred texts with scholastic wonder.

David explained privately to our small group that his brain functions differently on Shabbat. He intentionally operates on a lower level. He explained that he might be quiet and less engaged than usual. I had never thought about the practice of showing up in a limited way like that being a holy one.

David explained that on Shabbat, a part of him is fully reserved for rest and renewal and that he protects that part so that he can be more present later in the week.  Once the sun had set and three stars were visible in the English sky, we gathered for another reading of the Torah — then broke into games and fellowship. It was almost a moment of celebration together, a time of kinship. For Lindsey and David, I wonder what it must have felt like sharing their Sabbath with Muslims and Christians.

For us all, we felt very grateful to see a very private version of the Sabbath between two scholars and religious leaders of Judaism. By seeing the Sabbath through their eyes, I grew to love it. It is now one of my most sacred practices, and I hold my Sunday afternoons as a time and space for resting my body and mind. As I mature as a Christian, I now see that the Sabbath matures with me, and I celebrate the many ways of loving rest.