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Shabbat Without Shopping Carts

Nancy Maxwell reinvents the rules

When I burst into tears over the laundry basket, I knew something would have to change. As I sat there convulsively sobbing, my tears inundating the still-warm lemon scented sheets, I had to admit that things just could not continue.

It was easy to diagnose the cause of my emotional outburst. I, like an entire generation of fellow working moms, was exhausted. With a husband, daughter, job, graduate school class and house all demanding my time and energy, my tears betrayed the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not “do it all.” Though I had always prided myself on maintaining an organized, though hectic, schedule of household duties and errands, my tears revealed that even with all of my lists, systems and constant motion, I still could not manage to get everything done.

I also knew that the two most common women’s magazine solutions offered to overworked, overwhelmed working women like me were useless. I could not enlist my husband to do more, nor could I give up something. My husband is already as stressed and exhausted as 1 am. He works longer and harder at his job than I do. Though he has offered to take on more chores, I failed to see how having him crying over the laundry basket, instead of me, would help matters.

Nor could I find any activities I was willing to eliminate. I love my full-time job at the library and would not quit, even if I could. Likewise, I refuse to give up the intellectually challenging graduate theology class I take each semester. I have already lowered my housework standards, paid for what few services we can afford, and stopped doing lots of little things. For example, our clothes go from laundry basket to body without even coming close to a dresser drawer; I serve hot dogs or sandwiches for dinner without giving a passing thought to a green vegetable; and, despite the guilt I still feel when I see it, I let fine layers of dust reside upon our dark wood furniture. Still, as my weeping laundry session revealed, even these changes were not enough. I needed to try something radically different.

I found my “radical solution” in an unlikely source, at least it was an unlikely place for a non-observant, non-Orthodox Jew like me. My solution was to resurrect the ancient biblical observance of Shabbat. In his seminal work on Sabbath observance, Abraham Heschel refers to Shabbat as “God’s gift of time.” I realized that “time” was exactly what I needed.

But, as a liberal, modern, Reconstructionist Jew, I could not and would not observe a traditional Orthodox Shabbat, with all of the prohibitions against driving, turning on lights, answering the phone, et cetera. Reconstructionist Judaism encourages you to maintain, but alter if necessary, those Jewish practices that can still provide meaning and value in your life. Using that as a guide, I decided I would “reconstruct” Shabbat in a way that would let me observe a traditional day of peace and rest, but in a way that made sense for a contemporary Jewish career woman.

I was still sitting on the floor amidst my tear-dampened bedsheets when I began to construct “Nancy Maxwell’s Save-Your-Own-Life Shabbat Rules” . If my ancestors could cease their brick-making and olive tending for one day, surely I and my family could manage if no laundry or housework was done one day a week! But, unlike my ancestors, I would be the one to decide what was and was not forbidden on Shabbat.

My basic criterion, I decided, would be that, within reason, on Shabbat I would do only things I enjoyed and would avoid anything I found unpleasant. On my Shabbat I would prohibit household chores, errands and guilt-induced obligations. For 24 hours, no birthday, baby, bar/bar mitzvah, or wedding gifts would be purchased. On this one day I would not dash into any dry cleaners, bank or drug store, nor would I call irritating-but-I know- she-means-well Aunt Sophie.

Along with instituting these Shabbat prohibitions, I also decided that I would reserve pleasant, enjoyable tasks to savor during this special 24-hour slot. Everything from inviting friends over to reading a special magazine would be reserved for this day. Lazy outings I enjoyed would be included too, like browsing at the public library or swimming at the Y.

I implemented my new Shabbat rules the very next Saturday and was amazed at the immediate positive, energizing, regenerative results. The first tangible benefit was witnessed that first Shabbat morning at 8:30 a.m. After breakfast my seven-year-old daughter asked if I could play with her. “Yes,” I said. “You can?” she replied incredulously. She did not realize that, thanks to my new Shabbat resolve, I now had time for her rather than housework.

Along with time, my new Shabbat rules also gave me a sense of peace and calm beyond anything I ever expected. Now, when I wake up on Saturday mornings, I experience an almost physical sense of relief upon realizing that I do not need to do anything that day. Most exhilarating is the feeling of being freed from guilt—for an entire day—over not getting things done. I hadn’t realized, until I implemented my Shabbat, how chronically I suffered from an anxious, frantic “gotta-do-it-now” attitude all of the time. Only the absence of this feeling on Shabbat made me aware of its existence.

Amazingly, I did not experience any extra burden on the other six days of the week because of my non-work day. Somehow, the K-mart trips, obligatory phone calls and laundry got squeezed in during the week. By adding a few more errands to my other day off or to my lunch hour or my commute, I managed to redesign my days to enable me to enjoy one special day of God’s gift of time.

Though I would love for my husband and daughter to join me in this gift of time, their schedules and personal inclinations do not allow this. For now I enjoy my new pleasures of Shabbat alone, but I know my family is benefiting indirectly from my observance. Since I began this reconstituted Shabbat observance eight months ago, I am more relaxed and peaceful every day, not just on Shabbat. And, thanks to my reconstructed Shabbat, I have not once felt like crying over the laundry.

Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is a full-time reference librarian at Barry University, in Miami Shores, FL, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree in theology. Active in her Reconstructionist synagogue, she is a wife and mother whose “spare time ” includes writing a book about her intermarriage.