Tag Archives: sabbath

Shabbat Structure: Simply Sublime Spiritual Technology

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Solo Shabbat in Eire, Holy Hill Hermitage, Ireland, in my cabin named Clare in the Fall of 2016

Simple Shabbat, the basic structure is a phenomenal series of steps and prayers and practices to elevate the soul and align us with the essence of creation. I am writing this piece because a young woman, who was also on retreat, three years ago at the same hermitage as myself in Ireland, asked me about the order of the prayers. I led a few Shabbat ceremonies, both in my cabin and at the main house, for the other people on retreat. I was mostly alone, but there were moments of connection with the other hermits, clerics, and other folks taking sacred space in solitude.

I remember once being told by a dear friend of mine, Stephen Jenkins, professor Emeritus at Humboldt State University, who was getting ready to teach a three-day session on Judaism in his World Religions class, “Wish me luck, Nicole.” I responded with: “I don’t want to wish you luck, I need to come in and teach this part of your class.” I’m not sure those were my exact words, but this was the beginning of my lecturing in his World Religions Class. I have guest-lectured, during the Judaism portion of his classes, for over fifteen years now.

Some things cannot be put simply and survive the stripping down, especially when we are talking about Shabbat or Judaism in a three-day period of time. The mere idea of three days in a class on campus, to cover the topic, made me a little sick to my stomach. It felt kind of like asking me to describe the magnificence of the sunrise or my love for my children or any other sublime and mysterious, historical and elemental quality of the universe. It’s just not a three day or a one minute text or email kind of thing.

So, thank you Chelsea Smith, for asking me this question about the order of the prayers and why we cover the challah. I’m going to try to be brief, completely contradicting myself from the previous sentences. Of course, me being brief, is an oxymoron in and of itself.

When I lead a service I have a basic structure that I follow, which is not my invention and which has changed over the thousands of years that Jewish folks have been observing the Sabbath. I choose from various prayer books I like or I incorporate elements into my practice from those prayers when I am being a little looser in my observance.

You really begin by preparing for the time and setting the space. I clean my home, cook special foods, make challah (a braided Jewish egg bread).  I’ll get my recipe up here one of these days. You then create an altar. When the Beit Ha Midkash/Holy Temples were destroyed, Judaism did not die for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that we took the elements of our sacred service and rites that were observed in the Holy Temple and brought them into our homes and into our dining rooms.

As long as you have light (candles or oil lamps), wine, salt, bread, water, and prayers offered from your heart, you have the elements of the basic service. This means every Jewish home becomes a sacred temple in time and space. No one can say it better than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a simple short book called The Sabbath. I won’t begin to go where he has, but he describes Shabbat/the Sabbath as  both a Sanctuary and as a Palace in Time.

So, we begin by clearing and cleaning as if to welcome a sacred guest. That guest is the Sabbath Queen or the Shechinah or the Seventh Day. She is likened to a bride, she is always referred to in the feminine. We make special foods. For folks with little time or money, even during the Shoah and times of tremendous ugliness and torture, Jewish folks would hide a crust of bread or save one olive so they’d have two on Shabbat instead of one. Folks keep their best cheeses, oils, foods of any kind, for the three meals that occur beginning 18 minutes before the sun sets every Friday evening and ending when there are three stars in the sky the following night, Saturday. It’s roughly twenty-five hours or so, a little longer than one rotation of our spinning planet.

In Ireland, I couldn’t go buy a challah or get bread from Josh Fox, my favorite local baker, here in Arcata. I needed to make it. My little kitchen in my cabin, didn’t have an oven, so I had to make sure I could use the communal kitchen and arrange a time to be taking it over for many hours. I didn’t always do this, for many reasons, but here’s a picture of two small challahs I made for one of my blissful solo Shabbats.

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Small challahs, one in a traditional three braid form and one shaped like a Jewish Star of David, there’s also that key element SALT!

These Challahs are uncovered here, but they are traditionally covered with a cloth when we recite all the blessings before eating our Friday evening meal. This was the original question from Chelsea, “Why do you cover the bread again?”

We cover the bread because it is the final blessing we say before beginning our festive meal and we don’t want to hurt its feelings. This tiny piece of spiritual technology teaches us that if we are concerned about the feelings of our bread, so much so that we cover it, so it doesn’t know its the last in a long line of blessings, we better be that concerned about the feelings of all those we encounter. The bread thinks it’s the only blessing or the best blessing or the special blessing, because it somehow hasn’t heard or experienced all the previous ones. This seems a little comical, but it’s essential to Judaism. We physicalise our practices in small and large ways to make it not a mental exercise, but to embody the essence of what we are reaching for.

So, once the bread is made, I prepare the other foods and make my home and body ready to receive my guest. I take a bath or a shower, or I do a Mikveh (ritual immersion in living water, see Mikveh Movement and Me). Then I lay the table. I put the candles or oil wicks I am going to light out, I get the wine ready, open it and let it breathe so it is at its best. I make sure I have my prayer books or other readings I want to use, I pick fresh flowers and set the table more beautifully than I do for the rest of the week. It’s truly a special time.

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My Shabbat altar from my window seat in Clare.

Once all is ready, and usually this is minutes before you are required to kindle the lights of Shabbat, if I have time I meditate or center myself and let the week’s events play through my mind and release them. My beloved teacher, May his memory always be a Blessing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi sometimes used a small cardboard box that he passed around and asked folks to deposit their weeks’ cares, worries, and experiences into. He would then take it and put it outside the room or the house. I sometimes do this with children. It’s a great way to physically demonstrate the practice of letting go.

Then I cover my head with a shawl (creating a sacred space in my body) and light the candles and move my hands over them to bring the light of Shabbat into my whole being, I move my hands over them in a circular motion and bring their essence over my head, eyes and body three times. I then recite the first of many blessings. This blessing is thanking the Divine for instructing us to kindle the lights of the day and to observe the practice of it by resting deeply.

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Photo by Temple Beth El’s President Joseph Hale, from one of my Lay-led Shabbat Services

It’s very hard to talk about even one of these blessings in a short way, but that’s my assignment right now. Arrrggghhhh! Each one of these practices have books and teachings about them that deserve attention. Simple structure, okay, after the blessing for the Sabbath light (remember how light was the first thing created in the Universe?), we welcome the Angels of the Most High (the special Shabbat-only angels). These angels only come down to this earthly realm if they are invited and your space is ready for them. Did you set a space for the sacred guest, did you create a place of beauty for Holiness to hover? We welcome them and ask them to bless us with peace and then we let them depart. They have to go everywhere they are invited, so, they can’t linger. Their blessing though is so magnificent that it imbues the rest of the evening. As angels they can and do move through space and time differently than we do.

This is my favorite blessing, and even if I’m not doing more than just the basic layout, I almost never skip this one. I close my eyes and feel their presence and I am uplifted to the realm of the Holy One, for just a second or a moment, but that’s simply sublime!

Detail with Angel, sculpture in glass, given to me by a lovely woman who was at Holy Hill for a few days and who was part of a discussion about angels that miraculously occurred and which connected me with the incredible Irish mystic Lorna Byrne who sees and speaks with the angels.

Next we bless the children. This blessing is not just for folks with children, in my way of doing things, but a moment to name all the children in our lives or that we are thinking about. In a traditional setting the parents place their hands over the heads of their children and recite three blessings. One for boys, one for girls, and one for all of the above. I just generally do the all of the above since there are many folks who aren’t identified as one or the other. The prayer said over everyone is the priestly blessing originally offered by the Kohanim, (of which I am one). I like the male and female blessings as well, so sometimes I do all of them and just ask folks to align on the gender spectrum, however they wish, male, female, somewhere in between, or inclusive of it all.

Next is the blessing over wine. This is the VERY modified order of blessings at the table. There are many, many more, but if you do these blessings you are basically covered. The blessing over the wine isn’t just about giving thanks for the wine or grape juice. It’s the blessing that recounts the order of the Holy One’s creating of the universe and ending with the day of rest. It’s a blessing you do while holding a glass of wine, but it’s about acknowledging, thanking and sanctifying the DAY of rest. It’s longer than the other blessings and it’s beautiful!

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Shabbat Table, chez moi in Bayside, wine open and breathing, Challahs covered, salt on the table and right before candle-lighting. Artwork by Thao Le Khac, Joy Dellas, my grandmother Perla Barchilon and some Italian tile maker from a hundred years ago.

After the wine blessing, we do a ritual hand washing with a special two-handled cup. We aren’t cleaning our hands, we are purifying them. It’s a mikveh for our hands. We recite the blessing with our hands raised above our heads after having poured water three times over our right hand and then three times over our left hand and drying them with a clean cloth. The blessing basically says, Blessed are You, Holy One, who has instructed us concerning the raising/lifting/immersing of our hands.

This is crucial. Before we actually eat our meal, we’re almost there (I promise), we raise our hands towards the heavens. I think of this as dipping my hands in holiness and sanctifying them so that they only do good. I want to bring down the honey and love and goodness of the Divine realms and only have my hands be the vessels of that. I never want my hands to be hitting or hurting or tearing or harming others or the earth. No small task, which is why, we need reminding, hence the blessing!

Then we uncover that poor challah, who now is the most rich indeed. We’re hungry and excited, the challah is golden and the light of the sun is gone. We have the glow of the candles and the light reflected off the windows and each other’s eyes and now we give thanks for the miracle of bread. Bread is a miracle. The play of water, salt, yeast, grain and magic that makes it rise is how we too are made. Like the bread, we need to rise. We need time, rest, the right ingredients and balance of earthly elements, sugars and salts and magic to create pockets of air, or lightness so that we are magnificent.

Then we break the bread and dip it in the salt, which represents the promise of the Divine. Salt is a preservative, the original one, way back in the day. It reminds us of the value of commitment, of time moving across millenia, it’s the taste of the moon and stars and the ocean and our sweat and it connects us to our ancestors and life.

Then we eat and share stories and talk for hours. There’s another whole bunch of blessings after the meal….. but I’ll leave those for another day!

My Papa Jacques Barchilon, enjoying his Shabbat dinner, over a year ago. He’s in Heaven now, where the food and the company far exceed anything I can create here. I miss him so!

Wild, Wondering, Wandering, Wacky, Witchy Me!

Singing to the Ocean, the Cliffs and the Wind in County Donegal, Ireland
Singing to the North Atlantic Ocean, the Cliffs and the Wind in County Donegal, Ireland. Photo courtesy of Steve Smith

Not doing, not buying, not writing, not eating, not consuming, not pushing for things to happen, not having seconds, not watching a movie, not getting up, not being quiet, not praying, not being still, not, not, naught.

I’m struggling with the nots or the knots of what my “time off” is supposed to be or look like. In the beginning I found myself responding to questions about what I am doing here with hyperbolic statements about all the books I plan to write and all the study of Torah I need to do or am doing, and the hours of prayer I am engaging in.

The reality of this time right now is actually very complex and nothing like what I anticipated. My new friend Paddy Rolleston (a local potter who comes monthly to help folks learn to work with clay) very wisely said to me, when I shared my current difficulties and self-doubts:

“What we anticipate is never what ends up happening.”

This is proving to be true. While much of my time is unfolding as I’d imagined it to or anticipated, most of it is not. The layers and strands of who I am and what is happening here is very much like the unwinding of a large spool of yarn, except I’m not some neatly woven non-sticky polyester blend on a spool. I’m this massively complex and wooly skein that has gotten all twisted and worn over the 51 years of my moving about on this planet. I am here trying to unravel myself and find the center again.

It is NOT easy. It is easy to fall back into patterns and just give up on the untying of any particular knot in this massive mess of me. So, the old, comfortable ways of being and doing is something I fall into. Then I have to unwind or climb back out  again.

I do not want to behave as I have. This is not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with who I am or how I am or have been. It is because I am trying to experience something luminous, liminal and clean.

Perhaps that is hubris and ridiculous. But, there are so many hours and moments of just that kind of time here, that I know I can actually, if I unravel some more of me, get to walk in the Divine Mist and Mystery and let the Holy One help me re-make myself.

Perhaps it is just a refinement that will be asked of me, but perhaps it is a complete transformation. The problem with going into this territory is that it is not something I can control or know. It is, by its very nature, like going into a deep pool or a misty valley that I have never had the time to just be in. It is a maze and I have a hunger, in the core of my being, that is like a fierce magnet pulling from my heart begging me to keep going.

But, it’s easier to drive into town once a week and buy the groceries I want, than it is to continue moving through the maze or unraveling this ball of yarn. I find myself not sleeping, this is not new territory. So, I move between getting up and doing some kind of project, craft or cleaning, or I play solitaire for an hour on my iPad or I read or I watch a movie on my computer. In the middle of the night I also go out for walks in the rain and wind. I sing to the stars and give thanks to the Divine for the glory of night. I write in my journal or on my blog. I eat.

I do not meditate or get still as much as I think I should, another not/ knot. Here, the biggest knot is the self-judgement. This knot is fueled by all the little comments of friends and family, like a hyper sensitive piece of microfiber cloth every tiny thing clings to me, all the little completely not harmful or intended to be harmful things that people have said or say enters me like a piercing needle.

I’m sensitive again, way beyond what I anticipated. What is scary about this is that I actually expected to be completely raw and vulnerable and cried rivers about my fear around this before leaving for retreat. I’m already way tooooooooo sensitive.

When I say I’m an Empath, it doesn’t really make sense to people, I see the fear and confusion on their faces. “That’s just Nicole beings whimsical and romantic and exaggerating again.” Some folks understand, but feeling all that I feel has always been overwhelming and something both fearful and extraordinary for me.

From a very early age I realized that how I was experiencing the world was not how others were and this made me so lonely, but also afraid. I read a lot. I always have. I resembled, as a child, and now as a woman, I still do, all the stories of the fey and the witches. I could feel and see and do things that others didn’t seem to be feeling. Besides all the literature about witch trials and all the women put away in mental institutions for the crime of being  wild and female, I am Jewish to boot. The fear of revealing who I am has been with me my entire life. Will I be put away, labeled as crazy, disregarded because I am so clearly other or seen as delusional?

Once I became a mother, these fears grew. I knew that I had to really tamp down, and hard on who I was. I needed to endeavor to look somewhat normal. It was okay to be a loud, vivacious woman. It wasn’t okay to talk about my dreams or how I feel the pain in people. It is and was okay for me to feed folks and cook for them and make soup, but it wasn’t okay to say I was weaving a spell of love and healing into every cut of my knife or stirring of my spoon. It was okay to be an environmentalist, but it wasn’t okay to lie naked on the ground and talk to the earth and cry with her and feel her heart-beat.

I talk to the stars and the blades of grass. I sing with the birds and I talk to the cows in the field. I not only hug trees but I commune with them. I feel the pain in those around me like a constant throbbing that I am dancing with at all times and searching, searching constantly for ways to ease.

No wonder I can’t sleep. So, all of this is going on and more, much, much more. In Rabbi Gershon Winkler’s book The Magic of the Ordinary, he talks about Jewish Shamanism. I am not sure I am comfortable with that term for myself. I’m searching for the right word to describe who I am, when that is, of course, an impossibility.

“Jewish Shamanism involves engaging various spirit beings, either through meditative trances or through the invocation of any variety of Sacred Names that serve to call into being specific changes in the external environment. Jewish shamanism is also about a way of thinking, a way of being in the world, a way of consciousness that perceives magic in the ordinary, miracle in the ‘natural course of events.’ Where most people will be awestruck at the sight of a passing comet, the Jewish shaman will be awestruck at the sight of a fallen leaf.” Rabbi Gershon Winkler , Magic of the Ordinary, Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism

I read this piece the other day and cried and laughed. The falling leaves have been making me cry and revel and move me beyond belief. So, when Gershon says a “Jewish Shaman will be awestruck at the sight of a fallen leaf.” I crack up, because this is EXACTLY the territory I am in right now. I don’t need to pray for five hours, every second here is a kind of prayer. As I clean my space, I am cleaning the detritus of my internal space. My body is my home, my home is my body, my body is my home, my home is my body and if you are in my home, your are in my body. This is just how it is for me.

I sometimes call myself a Wild Woman or a Jewish Witch. I’m not afraid anymore of being burned at the stake, although my memory, my soul memory, recalls those flames.  Wild Woman comes closest because it expresses my relationship to nature, my engagement with it and there is the quality of the untamed and uncontrollable or manageable to the word and world of Wildness. So, Hiney Ni/Here I am, in this rural and somewhat tame, while at the at the same time, Wildish Magic Island of Ireland.

You only have to leave a plot of earth alone for a few weeks or months for it to start to return to its wild nature. If we don’t cut the grass or plow the field or fix the cracks in the concrete or maintain the road, nature will invariably re-claim her space. Grass will grow and bugs will come and the movement of wind, water, creatures and growth will shape the landscape according to the whim or desire of the Creator. We have to constantly hew out our place here, when we are trying to control our environment.

I have no desire to control the earth. I much prefer to walk on wobbly earth, to navigate the brambles and weeds, to garden gently with the earth. And yet, I like going to the store and buying the avocados that were grown in Mexico. Did I mention,  I’m in Ireland, so to get that avocado to my cabin here, if I trace the path back, I’ve used up thousands of hours of resources, time, energy, fuel, and participated in a cycle of destruction of our planet, just because that avocado appealed to me and I wanted to make beans and rice and guacamole. That’s another one of my messy knots. I can buy the local beans and Irish rice, but I want my avocado flavor. Simple and I, moderation and I, doing less and I, just are NOT related.

Nevertheless  I am continuing to unravel and unwind here. The leaves on this tree, being whipped by the winds and the rains and the cold frost, are whittling away who I am. As the new moon of Kislev appears in my window, I call out to her cold sliver. I am moving inward, hibernating and lessening the activities, curling inward and slowing, slowing.

And, this is my Shabbat year, my Jubilee Year, my Shabbat of Shabbats and if I just roll around on the floor or want to read 300 books and ignore whatever agenda I think I need to adhere to, or someone else thinks I do, then that is what this Wild, Wacky, Witchy Woman will do or NOT do!

At a Holy Well, meditating in Awe of the wind, the water, the wide, wide Atlantic Ocean I am facing. Photo by Eddie Vega
At a Holy Well, meditating in Awe of the wind, the water, and the wide, wide fierce and cold magnificent North Atlantic Ocean that is my home water now. Photo courtesy of  Eddie Vega