Tag Archives: Shabbat

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 he 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!

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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!

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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!

M.A.P.S.–Massage Acupuncture Pedicure Spiritual practice

Radiant Healthy Flowers on the Bima from Redwood Roots Farm in honor of the Jewish New Year
Radiant Healthy Flowers on the Bima from Redwood Roots Farm in honor of the Jewish New Year

A Quick Guide to the Alpha Female Jewish Mother M.A.P. + BIG S or a really good Recipe for Saving the World and Yourself

I generally am the person that everyone finds, asks or expects to be helpful, in charge, or doing the work; the Alpha, Alpha female in most situations. This recipe does apply for all people and genders, but I am definitely an Alpha Female, so I have to address this from where I am.

I am part of a large wolf-pack of sisters of amazing women who give huge amounts to their communities, their children, their spouses, their religious organizations. We all recognize each other, upon sight, and there is a sheer delight for me when I get to work with other power-house women. I know I can relax or flow in a completely different way than how I tend to operate when the only Alpha female in the space is me. If no one is in charge in a situation that I think needs some taking charge of, a flip gets switched in me. It’s a reflex, I just start moving into action.

Thirty-five years of Alpha female behavior wears on a woman (I started in my early teens). I will turn fifty in September of 2014, very, very soon. In order to maintain myself and navigate all that I do and am, I have a map I follow. Massage, Acupuncture, Pedicure and Shabbat/Sleep and Spiritual Practice. You don’t have to be wealthy to use this recipe or M.A.P. (S). You do have to have sisters or friends who will trade with you one or more of these activities. I don’t recommend seeing anyone other than a licensed professional acupuncturist though, (you will need to save money or work out a trade for this activity).

I have a monthly massage with a person I trust and who is a professional. I budget for this. When my budget won’t allow for this, I have a friend whose touch is lovely and we trade. I massage her, she me. I see my acupuncturist regularly two to four times a month. This is a maintenance issue for me now as I navigate menopause, a thyroid condition and as I experience the very real wear and tear on my body of a life spent doing and caring about and for lots of folks and the planet. I also get a pedicure once a month, either with a friend or at a local spa. So, I am covered top to bottom with this MAP.

The most important ingredient in all of this is my Spiritual Practice. It is really beyond this simple list, but since it conveniently starts with an S as do the words Shabbat and Sleep, it fits really well here. Sleep is not something I always manage to get fully, but I almost always have a day of rest. On Shabbat, I endeavor not to get out of my pajamas and to spend the majority of the day quiet in bed, on my deck or on the sofa. I study Torah, read a good book (when I’m not reading THE GOOD BOOK), nap, eat left-overs and visit with whomever shows up. I don’t check my email, or pay bills and I also try not to answer the phone, be on the computer, or deal with anything I don’t want to be doing. I have worked hard six days a week, most of my life, in various jobs (some that paid, others that didn’t). I don’t define work by the money I have been paid for what I do. If care-givers were paid wages based on what we do, we’d be millionaires, all of us.

You don’t have to be Jewish or wealthy to take care of yourself or observe a day of rest. You can make your own map. Acupuncture may not be something you can imagine wanting or needing, likewise a full body massage may not be something you want. They are incredibly important and useful to me. My particular MAP makes a good acronym, but yours may not, it still needs to be explored.

Yoga, gardening, Qi Gong, meditation, hot-tubs, swimming, hiking, biking, running, anything that gets your blood circulating and helps you feel nourished counts. It has to be helpful to your full being though, not just punishing and aerobic. I think the aerobic stuff is very important but it is very different than the self-care, relaxation and deep nourishment that I am talking about here. Also, if one of these activities is your paid work, then it doesn’t necessarily count as self-nourishment. If what you are doing has a purpose, like losing weight or “being good for you” while making you unhappy it is not part of my recipe. I’m not advocating against exercise, but what I am talking about here is really different. I want to be very clear about this.

Exercise and body engagement are extremely important, but the worship of the body that our culture thrives on is not healthy. Our bodies are vessels, temples of Holiness and the homes of our souls. They have very short life-spans, even if you live to be 120, that is a nanosecond of time on a universal time-scale. Some folks are born with different abilities and bodies than others, some folks are in accidents or have compromised immune systems and they will NEVER look like or feel like the culture tells them is healthy. This is FLAWED. Health cannot just be the provenance of the few lucky folks who don’t have any medical issues or who have been born with amazing genetics or who happen to look like the airbrushed models or stars onscreen and in the media.

Real health is a much GREATER thing. When you relax your body and you actually feel it, the blood flowing through it, the magnificent feeling of BEING in a body, there should be a strong sense of gratitude and a quality of Presence beyond Self that accompanies that. This is HEALTHY. The grace of having a body and being free to breathe or taste or love or sing is a gift and just using our bodies without giving thanks for them is wrong. Likewise taking for granted the bodies we have, regardless of their issues, “flaws,” sizes and shapes is not advised by this Jewish Mama.

You cannot navigate the terrain (of being an awake and caring person on this planet) without some kind of self-love and gratitude map. Folks often wonder how I do so much. There is no quick answer for this. I generally have more energy and chutzpah than most folks, but part of how I walk on this path and and why I do what I do is because I am not just doing for others. I also DO for myself and I take it seriously, not once a year or if I get a break, but regularly, weekly and monthly. I am also constantly, really all the time, in a state of gratitude. When I’m not, I know something is off and I have to re-align or get a Massage, Acupuncture or a Pedicure or I have to wait for Shabbat and remember to actually observe it.

Spiritual practice, which runs through everything I do, whether it is “Praying in the Lap Lane,”  cooking, riding my bike, or attending religious services is what keeps me not just in my body, but ALIVE in my body. My engaged practice with the Divine informs and inspires all of what I do and who I am and how I am. There are as many ways to connect to something larger than self as there are selves on the planet. It doesn’t make any difference to me how you define Holiness, but it does make a difference to serve a greater or higher purpose that is meaningful and real for you.

The inspiration to continue or to move past fatigue or to engage once again with pursuing justice or getting back up off the ground when we fall, needs to be linked to something bigger than our finite sense of self and whatever energy we have to spare. If it is related to a real relationship with beauty, excellence, grace, mystery and delight it will sustain us, inform us, guide us and prepare us while it also will continually bathe and soothe us as we work to mend what is broken in our world or in ourselves.

So, the Alpha Female Jewish Mother MAP/Recipe for the whole world looks something like this: Start to look into or further cultivate your relationship to something greater than yourself and don’t forget to give yourself a lot of juice and love along the way and while your at it, endeavor to find your gratitude and to cultivate it and be generous with who you are and what you have been given.

If you do all this, well, the world really will be a better place and you’ll be happier to be in it and on it for the eye-blink of time you’ve been granted to be in the body you are inhabiting at this moment. ENJOY!