Grounding in Ritual: Shabbat During Coronavirus

Shabbat candles. Image by RJA1988 from Pixabay.

Friday has always been my favorite day of the week. When Friday arrived each week in high school, my focus throughout the school day would turn to the moment I could race home from school, swap my stiff denim jeans for plushy sweatpants, and collapse onto the couch for a rejuvenating afternoon of watching movies. Fridays were already special enough—the marking of a blissful 48 hour break from my high-intensity high school—that I was indifferent to Shabbat. I raced through blessing the candles, wine and challah with my family so I could scarf down my dinner and go meet up with my friends.

But then COVID-19 arrived and suddenly, there were no more exhausting school weeks to lead up to Fridays. Days blurred together, identical to each other in the endless stream of unfilled hours. All of the things that distinguished time disappeared: exams, shows, family gatherings, trips, high school graduation. To my great surprise, the only thing that remained was Shabbat. Rain or shine, in coronavirus or in health, Shabbat continued to happen every Friday night.

My small Reform synagogue in Washington DC started hosting Shabbat services over Zoom. My family decided to participate on the first Friday of quarantine, longing for some structure and frankly, just something to do. My sister even baked a homemade challah and we gathered around on the living room sofa, chanting, singing, eating in the light of the flickering Shabbat candles. And for an hour, we forgot the unruly circumstances, and just embraced the moment. Judaism offers the one thing that few other entities can: a way to mark the passing of time in a meaningful way.

From that first Friday, the tradition took off. For the first time I could remember, my family began to shape our weeks around the celebration of Shabbat. We planned meals that we could eat together. We made sure we were done with work early enough to be able to completely relax by the time services began. And as soon as Friday afternoon rolled around, I could smell the scent of fresh challah wafting out of the oven.

My family also dived into the texts, prayers, and religious meaning of Shabbat more than we ever had. I’d had the amazing opportunity to spend a semester in Israel during my junior year of high school, where I fell in love with studying Torah, but my parents and sister never showed much interest in it. With so much time on our hands, we learned about the Counting of the Omer, the verbal counting of the 49 days leading up to Shavuot and the traditional harvest of grain. We absorbed and pondered experts of Pirkei Avot that our rabbis shared each Friday, discussing how they applied to our current lives and to society as a whole.

Not many good things are coming out of this pandemic, but it has been a joy to watch my family embrace Shabbat as a time to pause and reflect, a time to separate one week from the others, a time to come together as a family and a community. Although the days have felt somewhat aimless over the past three months, Shabbat has kept me grounded and given me a reason to look forward to Fridays again. I know that even after the hardest, most boring, or most heart-wrenching weeks, Shabbat is calmly awaiting me at the end, ready to greet me and my family with comfort and warmth.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Hoffman, Isabel. "Grounding in Ritual: Shabbat During Coronavirus." 26 June 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 27, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/grounding-ritual-shabbat-during-coronavirus>.

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