Published: January 20th 2012January 7th 2012
My first full day in Israel was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. It begins a few minutes before sundown on Friday and ends when the first cluster of three stars can be seen on Saturday night. On this day, the Torah commands Jews to refrain from performing any kind of work. Specific forbidden activities include kindling or extinguishing a fire, building or tearing down a house, and writing or erasing two or more letters. That seems fair enough, but it is also forbidden to make two loops, to weave two threads, or to separate two threads. It is forbidden to tie or untie anything, and to transport an object more than four cubits within the public domain (however long that is). Only if a human life is at risk can someone conduct any of these forbidden activities. While most Shabbat laws are restrictive, it is also a mandate to enjoy the Shabbat and, therefore, pleasurable activities, such as sex (with your spouse) and singing (although not necessarily at the same time), are encouraged.
On Friday evening, I accompanied my hosts to the synagogue, where men and woman pray from separate areas. The only woman in the group and, apparently, the only woman in town not preparing her house for Shabbat, I sat alone upstairs as the men sang in Hebrew below. It didn’t take long to fall asleep. Luckily I woke up before the service ended. We returned to a pre-lit house and a pre-cooked meal. Since it is forbidden to make or extinguish a spark, any lights you want on must be switched on before Shabbat begins and remain on until it ends. Similarly, all three Shabbat meals are cooked beforehand and kept at an incredibly scalding temperature in a sort of slow-cook oven, or magical Shabbat box, as I liked to call it.
After blessing the wine and two loaves of challah
, we got to the very serious business of eating. It was my first time eating in a kosher kitchen and someone had to explain the rules to me (and explain them again every time I made a mistake). Basically, meat and dairy can never be eaten together. More observant Jews even wait up to six hours after eating meat before consuming milk products. There are separate plates to serve meat dishes on, separate utensils to eat them with, separate sponges to wash them with, and separate cupboards to store them in. If the meal contains no meat or dairy, it can be eaten from either dish, as long as it’s with the appropriate utensil. The first mistake I made was eating a salad in a meat bowl with a dairy fork. Many mistakes were to follow and many utensils were to be thrown away. By the time I left, I think I owed my hosts an entire new set of kitchen supplies. But, you live, you learn.