Travel to Jewish sites is a great way to learn our heritage and to deepen our faith. But what if you can't get away? What if your finances, work schedule, or family's needs keep you from going too far? Then why not staycation?
Readers Digest defines a staycation as "a way to set your body and mind into relaxation mode." What makes time away a staycation, and not just a day off, is setting the mood and atmosphere. Suggested tips include unplugging your alarm clock, turning off your phone, not checking emails, and avoiding the never-ending to do list. Sound familiar? it should, as these would all be prohibited activities during a traditional observance of Shabbat! For Jews, the staycation is not a new concept, but a weekly tradition going back thousands of years!
Step one for creating a great staycation is to clean and prepare your home. This helps set the mood and create the atmosphere you desire. Similarly, Shabbat preparation begins with cleaning your house and having everything ready that you will need. But, don't see this as additional work, or an unwanted task. Rather, see it as the creation of an atmosphere that will lead to total rest and relaxation. Help set the mood by playing Jewish music as you clean. Bring in fresh flowers to both decorate and to bring new life to your home.
Besides the cleaning of your home, Shabbat preparations also involve the cleansing of your body, the physical abode of the "additional soul," or expanded consciousness, that each of us are said to receive on the seventh day of the week. For, while a staycation may provide physical rest and rejuvenation, Shabbat promises spiritual renewal as well.
For many observers of Shabbat, Friday afternoon includes immersion in a mikveh, a natural pool of water that hasn't been delivered through artificial piping. Completely natural sources of water such as springs, ponds, lakes, rivers and the ocean are also usable. Tradition states that we should immerse completely three times... the first to wash away physical impurities, the second to cleanse ourselves of thoughts and deeds pertaining to the work week, and a third time to accept the spirit of Shabbat. Some immerse again in the mikveh on Shabbat morning (Saturday) also. As a sign of purity, consider dressing in all white clothing, in anticipation of the spiritual time period to follow.
Shabbat officially begins with the lighting of candles. It is customary that there be two of them, as the Fourth Commandment (the one about Shabbat) is found in two places within the Torah. In Exodus, we are told to "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." In Deuteronomy, we see it restated as "Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy." Thus, we light two candles, one for each verse. Again, they are typically white in color (but may be of any color) to symbolize the purity and holiness of the occasion.
Many traditional Jewish households light the candles eighteen minutes before sunset. This is because in the Hebrew language, letters also represent numeric values and eighteen is the total sum of the letters that make up the Hebrew word for life (chai). We read in Genesis that God sanctified the seventh day because he observed creation and saw that it was good. Humans are created in the "image of God" and so emulate the divine actions by also sanctifying Shabbat and seeing the blessing of creation themselves. Lighting the candles eighteen minutes before sunset is symbolic then of leaving our rigid and artificially scheduled work week, and entering the "natural time" that is Shabbat. Taking a moment to reflect on this is a powerful means of establishing a distinctly spiritual mood for your Shabbat staycation.
As we recite the blessing over the candles (the moment Shabbat truly begins), we cover our eyes. This is because, according to tradition, one is not allowed to light a fire once Shabbat has begun. So, we conceal the flames until after the blessing has been said. But, it also allows a moment for meditation and reflection. Although our eyes are closed, we can still envision the candle's light and feel the warmth of the flames embrace us. Metaphorically, we may understand this as the touch of God nurturing and sustaining us and all of creation. We then find the peace of Shabbat that is wished upon all of us with the customary greeting "Shabbat Shalom."
The highlight of Shabbat eve (Friday night) is the meal. Be creative and serve something different from the other nights of the week. Again metaphorically, Shabbat is seen as both the spiritual bride of the Jewish people, and the queen of creation. So, make your table fitting for a visit by royalty! Drape it with a nice table cloth and pull out the finer china and silver ware. Make your meal special too! Excite your taste buds with a menu that you don't normally enjoy. This is a great time to explore Jewish cultural heritage by dining on traditionally Jewish foods from around the world. Make it a feast and invite family and friends to enjoy it with you!
Work is forbidden on Shabbat which makes it the perfect staycation. But, it is not just physical work that is forbidden. Rather, it is a cessation from the process of creating, so that we may reflect on the goodness of the world around us. Halachically, there are thirty-nine categories of work that are not allowed. These are based on the skills used to make the holy tabernacle in the Sinai Desert. Again, we shouldn't see these prohibitions as restrictive. Rather, they free us from being defined by what we do and allow us to find our true selves... to just be.
The staycation is all about unplugging from the electronic tethers that bind us to our occupations and the general business of our lives. And so is Shabbat!
Let's take a look at some tips and activities that will make your Shabbat the perfect staycation:
1) My #1 tips is to create a theme for your Shabbat practice each week. This will help set the day aside from the rest of your week. Jews have lived all over the world, which makes it easy to choose a historic, or cultural theme to follow. Pick a period of Jewish history, or a place where Jews have lived, and incorporate it into your Shabbat decor, meals, music, readings and more!
2) Completely unplug! This is not only a part of traditional Shabbat observance, but is general advice for creating a great staycation. Remember, this is a time to get away. So, avoid phone calls, emails, social media, news, and any other reminders of work and the stress of daily life.
3) Enjoy nature... Remember, the seventh day of the week was declared holy because God observed creation and saw that it was good. Our observance of Shabbat is meant to imitate this act, and so we too should "see" the beauty of nature and the goodness of the world around us. Take a guidebook and go on a nature hike to identify birds, trees and other critters! Visit a park, zoo, or local farm! Go camping, whether it is across town, or in your own backyard (this then could be your theme for that work)! Not matter which activity you choose, try to feel your connection to the natural world around you and know that you too are inherently good.
4) Enjoy time with family... Unplugging creates the perfect opportunity to spend time with your family. Play board games, read together, or just talk. Go on a leisurely stroll. And consider the traditional Jewish practice of blessing your children. This special practice will help bring you and your family closer together.
5) Pamper yourself with a relaxing massage, a good book, or the enjoyment of a favorite hobby.
6) connect spiritually... This is the essence of Shabbat. Take time to meditate, pray, and just contemplate. Your focus should not be on personal needs or wants, but on gratitude and appreciation of the blessings of your life. Remember, we are emulating God's seeing the goodness of creation. Strive to feel that spiritual connection with the Holy One and creation. Then you will find that Shabbat provides not only physical rest, but spiritual rejuvenation also.
Today, many are choosing to staycation as a way to take time out and relax from the stresses of their daily life. As Jews, we have known the benefits of this practice for millenia and set time aside weekly to do so. But then, as we tried to assimilate with our neighbors, some temporarily forgot about the meaning and benefits of Shabbat observance. Others, in reaction to these reforms, focused on the the restrictions and a strict interpretation of Shabbat rules, and forgot the "spirit" of the holiday. Now all of us are rediscovering this lost legacy, and the world seems to be catching up to us. It's simply a matter of making the choice to set this day aside and making it special and different from the rest of your week.
A weekly Shabbat staycation can help you to fully rejuvenate both physically and spiritually, as we take time out from the chaos of our daily lives and work schedules. I hope I've been able to inspire you with a new perspective on this traditional practice. Shabbat Shalom!
Author of Historical Thriller, True Identity