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The Ideal Sabbath, and Why You Should Not Waste Yours, Part 1

April 23, 2014

(Part Two here.)

A few months after we were married, my wife and I were invited to join another two couples from the neighborhood for their second sabbath meal. One of the other gentlemen present was a member of my kollel; the other gentleman was a friend, but not from yeshiva. The meal only started around noon, and by 3pm or so I started to get antsy. The non-kollel fellow noticed my slight discomfort, and started to explain why he felt that sabbath meals should drag on: “During the week, you don’t have enough time to socialize. On shabbos, you have to catch up.” Of course, I had a comeback ready. “I guess that would depend on your priorities. I think that some guys would say that because you don’t have enough time to sleep during the week, you have to get in as much sleep on shabbos. Or some shtark guys will say that because you do not have enough time to study Torah during the week, you have to study as much as possible during shabbos.” Of course the truth is that everyone has his own priorities, and therefore everyone sees shabbos as the time for something else, be it family, friends, food, or fights.

But what did our sages think? Many want to think that it was about quality time with the family at sumptuous meals spiced with zemiroth, and lots of relaxation, but that is not the case. To them, the Sabbath was actually meant to be a day about catching up on one’s Torah study.

Here are the Talmudic and Midrashic sources:

Gittin  38b: Rabba said: For these three offences men become impoverished: for emancipating their [heathen] slaves, for inspecting their property on Sabbath, and for taking their main Sabbath meal at the hour when the discourse is given in the study hall. For so R. Hiyya b. Abba related in the name of R. Johanan, that there were two families in Jerusalem, one of which used to take its main meal on Sabbath [at the hour of the discourse] and the other on the eve of Sabbath, and both of them became extinct.

Midrash Tanhuma Wayaqhel:

The Torah said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Master of the Universe! When Israel enters the land, this one will run to take care of his vineyard, and this one will run to take care of his field, and what will be with me?” He said to it: “I have a match for you, and the Sabbath is its name, for they will not be involved with their work thereon, and they will engross themselves with you.” 

The Shulhan Aruch rules (Orah Hayim 290:2) that after the second meal, the one on the morning of the Sabbath, “we set a time for study, to read the prophets and expound homiletics, and it is forbidden to set a time for a meal at that time.” The Rema adds that those laborers who do not have time to study Torah during the week should dedicate extra time to study on the Sabbath, and the Mishna Berura adds “Sabbaths and Festivals were only given to Israel so that they involve themselves with Torah.”

I do not know of any traditional Jewish congregation or yeshiva that still maintains a sh’ath beth midrash, a set time for Torah study and lecturing, following the second Sabbath meal. Most are surprisingly empty in the up to eight hours between the end of the morning services and the beginning of the afternoon service.

How much time should be dedicated to Torah study after the second meal? is there a comprehensive schedule that the sages would have recommended for a typical Sabbath? Thankfully, Maimonides answers these questions. But first, another personal digression: In the good old days, I would have been antsy to leave the second meal quickly so that I could get a good, few-hours nap every sabbath afternoon. I would attend a morning service at around 8.30 am, eat a hearty lunch as soon as possible after that, and then nap it off. Only then would I go to to the study hall, where, before I had multiple children, I could maybe spend an hour so before the afternoon service, which was already late in the afternoon, and then after prayers there was only time left to eat the third meal before the Sabbath ended, so I stayed for the third meal wherever I had prayed. I was jealous of another kollel member, a much better mathmid and gemara kupp than myself, who by then had accustomed himself to leave his morning meal and spend most of the Sabbtah afternoon in the study hall, only returning to his new family once the prayers were over. I knew he was living an ideal, and now I pray that I have the chance to make up all the tme I missed earlier. In my own defense, I used to need to sleep a lot more, and the Tur (ibid.) mentions that it is permissible to nap a little bit before the set time for study.

Here’s what Maimonides has to say (Sabbath 30:10):

Eating meat and drinking wine on the Sabbath is a form of pleasure for a person, provided this is within his [financial] capacity.On the Sabbaths and holidays, a significant meal at which wine will be served is forbidden to be scheduled for the time the house of study is in session. Instead, the practice of the righteous of the former generations would be as follows: A person would recite the morning service and the additional service in the synagogue. Afterwards, he would return home and partake of the second [Sabbath] meal. He would then proceed to the house of study, to read [from the Written Law] and to study [the Oral Law] until the time for minha, at which time he would recite the afternoon service. He would then [partake of] the third [Sabbath] meal, a significant [sitting] at which wine is served, and continue eating and drinking until the Sabbath passed.

The key to what Maimonides is saying lies in his mentioning that the third meal is the one at which one drinks, not the second, and in defining the time for minha, the afternoon service. According to Maimonides, the ideal time for the prayers is at nine and a half seasonal hours of the day, the time the Bible calls minha and when the daily afternoon sacrifice was usually offered, what we call minha q’tana, and ironically, the time that religious Muslims conduct their afternoon services. Thus, if the Sabbath were on the equinox and the sun would rise at 6am and set at 6pm, for example, he would have us pray early in the morning. Services would start sometime before 6am, and be over by, say, 8am. Then we would eat our second meal, but without drinking and eating too much so as not to induce sleepiness, and by 10am return to the study hall and study for a good five and a half hours, until the afternoon service at 3.30. By 4pm, everyone heads home for the last meal. As you can see, our modern, western-influenced life styles do not allow us to spend our sabbaths like that. Our morning services start too late and have too many social additions, like mi-shebeirachs and speeches, and everything else the gathering demands as the once-a-week-dose of religion for most congregants. Then we eat our second sabbath meals only very late in the morning, if not the in afternoon, and because of our unappreciated modern excess, we eat too much heavy and fatty food, and maybe drink a little too, and that creates a situation where too many men are then incapable of returning to the synagogue until some hours later. It should not be that way.

Thank God, for the past five years, I have been privileged to be a part of a small but growing group of men who have realized that they do not have enough time to study during the week, and therefore make sure to abbreviate their Sabbath meals so that they can return to the synagogue for the early afternoon service, and they forego their naps in order to stick around for a few hours to study. I have even more recently taken upon myself to not eat anything b’sari or fleishig, meaty, until the late afternoon meal so that I not get sleepy during the day. And I no longer eat chulent. I highly recommend that the rest of you try it too. We can take back the Sabbath if we just save our heavy eating and drinking for shaleshudes. Spread the word.



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