The Music of Halacha: Shabbat 13-Things-1
The most thrilling and fascinating moments of my childhood were when I snuck out of bed, avoiding
the powers of the house such as mother and sisters, and climbed onto my father’s lap as he taught a group of nonobservant Jews in his study. The thrill was the escape from bed at the very late hour of 9PM. The fascination was with the always-available answer to any question and with the game or verbal dance, rabbi and students played to begin each class.
My father would ask, “What would you like to study tonight?” They would answer, “Topic X,” to which my father would reply, “You can’t really be interested in X. Let’s study ‘Y’”.
One class began with; “We want to study the concept of holiness.” My father said, “We must first study a specific blessing before we can discuss holiness.” He waited, and all the students opened their prayer books to the blessing of Holiness in the Amidah – The Silent Prayer. I giggled. “Why are you laughing?” my father asked as he gave me a small squeeze. “They opened to the wrong blessing.” “How do you know?” “Because you always have a surprise for them.”
“He’s right. I want to open with the blessing “Who Clothes the Naked” in the Morning Blessings.”
That night I learned that we could measure the effectiveness of that blessing in the way we cared for our clothes. People, who believe that it is God Who clothes the naked, respect and appreciate, almost honor, their clothes. A person who says the blessing with clarity will relate to his clothing as gifts from God and will treat them with care. My mother never again had to ask me to clean my room or put away my clothes. She still does not understand how I changed overnight.
I learned that holiness begins with the appreciation and honor of my life, my body, and my things.
The final chapter of the Book of Nehemiah describes how Nehemiah, the Jewish governor of Judea, appointed by Ataxerxes, the king of Persia, fought to strengthen Shabbat. The marketplaces of Jerusalem were filled with the regular hustle and bustle of business on Shabbat. People knew how to conduct themselves according to the laws of Shabbat but against its spirit. Nehemiah decreed that absolutely everything was “Muktzah” – Cut Off – on Shabbat, except a plate and fork for each person. He expanded the list of permissible objects each week until he left matters as they now remain; the complex laws of Muktzah.
Nehemiah expanded the idea of Melechet Machashevet – Thoughtful Action – to include the concept of change, even if only a change in relationship and designation. For example, he forbade the taking of anything that was not designated for use at the beginning of Shabbat.
I believe that Nehemiah was teaching us how to find holiness in our things and how to relate to them.
The Music of Halacha will pay attention to the laws of Muktzah for the next few weeks and gently remind us how to enjoy what we have and how to imbue all our “things” with real holiness.