It is easy to get bogged down with arguments over how different Jews mark Shabbat: from the synagogue to the beach to hikes to chulent to soccer games to a combination of the above.
But no matter how they observe the day, to hear millions of people wish each other Shabbat Shalom, to feel like there are a million people in the markets and makolets, and then to experience the bustle transforming to quiet later on Friday afternoon as Shabbat approaches is to celebrate both unity and diversity at the same time.
Coming from the U.S., where – like many countries – Friday afternoon means from the workplace to the shower to shul, I was shocked to see how at least some, if not many people, in Israel take a nap on Friday afternoon.
For some, it’s to be rested for the night on the town, while for others it means trying not to fall asleep during the Kabbalat Shabbat davening which can be so beautiful if you’re awake.
On an El Al flight on a Friday afternoon from Newark to Ben Gurion, I was so touched to hear one flight attendant remark to his colleague that she looked disturbed about something.
“Don’t be sad,” he said to her, “soon, it’ll be Shabbat.”
You can be listening to the radio on Friday afternoon, and the deejay on a “secular” station will make reference during a commuter report to the possibility that listeners – of all shades – are on the roads on their way to Shabbat dinner.
Which takes us to a supermarket on a Friday morning.
An older teen next to me in line at the checkout has a lot of snacks in his shopping cart.
An older man right nearby is looking at the cart’s contents, and says to the kid: “Looks like you’re going to have quite a party on Shabbat.”
The kid nods and smiles: “Yeah, my parents are away for a couple of weeks. The guys are coming over tonight.”
Man: “Parents away? Who’s going to give you the Friday night blessing?”
Kid shrugs: “So one week they won’t bless me. No big deal.”
Man: “Can’t let that happen.” He puts his hands on the kid’s head and blesses him.
So, the kid was blessed, but also looked embarrassed. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Then, a woman who I hadn’t even noticed until this point, approaches the kid, and insists: “No, no. It’s not enough until you also get a blessing from a mother. My kids will get from me tonight; why should you go without one?!”
At which point, the cashier says: “Hey, kid. You got all your blessings? I haven’t got all day; are you’re going to pay, or what?”
That was in the city of Beit Shemesh. On a different Friday, I was waiting at a Jerusalem bus stop to return to Beit Shemesh.
A guy asks me if I can take a shopping bag. Inside are chicken, kugel, and other Shabbat foods.
“Can you deliver this to my mother-in-law in Beit Shemesh? My wife cooked food for my in-laws for Shabbat, but now one of our kids is sick so we can’t be with them, but we want to make sure that they have enough to eat.”
He tells me where they live. I reply that I get off a couple of stops earlier.
“No problem,” he says. “They’ll come to your stop to pick up the food.”
The plan worked perfectly.
In Jerusalem, I got a blessing from the son-in-law; in Beit Shemesh, I got a blessing from the mother-in-law as she picked up the food and told me what a good deed I had just done.
I joked that the only problem had been that it smelled so good, I was tempted to have some of the food during the bus ride.
“Take something,” she insists.
“It’s OK,” I say, “We’ve already cooked at home.”
We exchange wishes of Shabbat Shalom and part ways.
That, my friends, is Shabbat in Israel.
Always take the advice of the flight attendant: “Don’t be sad. Soon, it’ll be Shabbat.”