Coming from a country where the Sabbath is no longer really considered a day of rest, what with shops opening twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and sports events filling the whole weekend, it is strange to find myself in a country where it is almost a compulsory observance.
As part of our course we had been invited to join the Kehillat Yedidya (Friend of God) community in the Baka neighbourhood in Southern Jerusalem at their evening prayers and afterwards to join with members of the community in their homes to celebrate the Shabbat meal.
But the preparations for Shabbat started a few hours before that with most workers finishing by 2pm. At Yad Vashem we packed up our notes and made our way with the stream of visitors and staff leaving the museum. It was already obvious that things were winding down as the traffic was flowing more freely as the roads emptied.
Our arrival by coach was quite conspicuous as all around us people were walking in preparation for the fact that no vehicles are allowed to be driven during Shabbat. We were greeted and welcomed by Dr Ophir Yarden* who had lectured to us earlier in the week. Founded in 1980 The Modern Orthodox congregation of the synagogue is made up of 195 households comprised mainly of immigrants from English-speaking countries, including Britain and America; many European countries, and some native Israelis.
We were led into the main hall where the Qabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) had already begun with the singing of the Yedid Nefesh (Opening Hymn) and were divided into men and women’s sections. This gender differentiation is normal for orthodox Jews, however despite this practical inequality, this community do recognise the validity of women’s voices being heard, as the homily was delivered by a woman
I soon realised how very hard it is to follow a service not only in a foreign language but also trying to read the Hebrew Alphabet at speed – something I failed miserably to do with my limited knowledge. I, therefore, just let the melodic sounds and harmonies of the sung psalms wash over me – a real change from plainchant.
After the service we were walked to our hosts homes, about 15 minutes away off of the Hebron Road. Now shared out in pairs, Angie and I were welcomed by Elise and Moshe, both originally from American, and their sons Jacob, David and Noam. Two more friends of the family also joined us.
The Shabbat candles had already been lit (no later than 18 minutes before sundown) and as we sat down the family sang Shalom Aleichem (Peace be unto you), a welcome and offer of hospitality to the angels who they believe accompany us. Moshe also took the opportunity to bless his children, as he had been away on business overseas and had only arrived home that afternoon. The translated words he used were very familiar… it is the same blessing I would use for those coming up to the Communion rail.
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace
The Kiddush was then recited over a large cup of organic grape juice, before being divided among us and then we were invited to wash our hands with a two-handled cup, once on the top and once on the bottom of each hand, after which we were to keep silent until the two loaves of Challah bread had also been cut and a piece given to everyone. Now the meal could begin.
The Challah loaf was delicious, Elise having made it earlier in the day. A fish dish was followed by an orange and vegetable soup and then chicken with rice, prunes and beans. Clear tea (without milk) was then served with a short extemporisation by Moshe concerning his namesake Moses, before prayers ended the meal.
It was a real privilege to join in such an intimate meal with a Elise and Moshe’s family and after we had finished our conversations on the differences between Anglicanism and Methodism (Angie is a Methodist Minister) and the reasons why they chose to come and settle in Israel 29 years ago; the fact that Moshe could not set foot in Hebron or Bethlehem, and the surprise and delight Elise had when two women priests turned up (she was expecting men) we were walked to the Hebron Road to hail a taxi to take us back to the hotel (the taxi driver was non-Jewish).
Somehow these occasions help to break down barriers and mistrust between people of faith, when people talk first as human beings and then as adherents of different religions with a common root.
Please note that none of the images used in this blog were taken on the evening as the use of mobile phones or indeed any technology is prohibited and it would have been considered bad manners to use it as a camera, so it remained off, in my bag.
*Dr Ophir Yarden is the Director of Education at ADAShA (meaning ‘lens’ in Hebrew and Arabic) The Jerusalem Centre for Interreligious Encounter. He is active is Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.