We had already been to the Western Wall of the temple area, where devout Jews pray, however we had another opportunity to go there, this time on Shabbat, the holy seventh day of the week and an important hallmark of Jewish observance.
It was a significant weekend in Israel—Jerusalem day, commemorating the re-unification of Jerusalem after the six day war (1967) was the very next day. The day after that was to be a ceremony marking the historic move of the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
At the plaza overlooking the Western Wall, groups of young people dance and sung in circles. Many of the youth wore “Birthright Israel” name tags. The organisation provides Jewish youth from around the world the opportunity to visit the land of Israel.
One large circle, a mixed gender group of about 25, opened their ranks and a young woman turned to Susan and myself. She invited us to join them. This was something. Perhaps, since we are both brunettes with brown eyes, and wearing the requisite long skirts, they mistook us for one of them. Or, in the spirit of Sabbath, they might just be welcoming everyone. She handed us a slip of paper with some Hebrew words and an English translation. I wish I’d kept the paper, but the words had to do with welcoming the Sabbath as a bride. We joined hands with the group, trying our best to learn the tune and words in a foreign tongue.
The thought of welcoming the Sabbath as a bride is a novel idea to me. In our New Testament view, the church is the bride and although I grew up with the ideals of honouring the Sabbath (in our case Sunday), in present day North American Evangelicalism this tradition has fallen by the wayside.“His yoke is easy, his burden light” (Matthew 11:30) and “Jesus is our Sabbath,” (Hebrews 4:9-11) are quoted in defense of the omission. With a few swipes of Scripture, the ideals of marking a Sabbath day (whether Saturday or Sunday) have been swept away as if it had no relevance whatsoever to our modern lives.
Yet here, Sabbath is welcomed as a blessing and a delight. It is a biblical idea (Psalm 1:2) as we are reminded throughout Scripture that God’s law is a blessing. Not a means to salvation of course, but a blessing. After the creation of the world, God gave Sabbath to humanity as a gift. A day of rest from regular labours to contemplate, enjoy his presence and the fellowship of others. I think the weekly rhythms of Sabbath observance could still be a blessing, in our busy lives.
After leaving the circle, I walked down to the women’s section of the wall, where similar celebrations were in order. Since people had come from all over the world, it was evident they each had their own traditional Shabbat songs and dances. Another young woman taught a large group of women the moves to a hora-like dance. Many joined in, while others continued their vigil at the wall with Hebrew prayer books in hand. I looked on the shelves for a prayer book in English, but to no avail.
Peeking through the lattice to the men’s side I saw men wearing phylacteries and tasselled prayer shawls and wearing a variety of hats which signify the particular branch or denomination of Judaism. The lattice which screens the women from the men is a reminder that all is not equal here. We were told that the Ultra Orthodox have, on occasion, become so offended at woman carrying Torah scrolls and praying for example, that they threw plastic chairs and water over to the women’s side. Ahh, the burden of trying to enforce a particular interpretation of the law, and passing its judgement on others.
That is exactly what Jesus was against.
So I will celebrate the ideals of Sabbath, choosing to take rest and fellowship on the first day of the week, but I will not throw chairs at others. Jesus is our Sabbath, the one who brings rest to our striving and peace to our hearts. I look forward to celebrating that together someday with all his people.