Friday 9 August 2013


By Artur Suski, S.J. 


Few of us were left unaffected after watching the film or seeing the musical Fiddler on the Roof. A group of us watched this masterpiece together recently. It was my second time watching it, and this time around, I was moved by it in a different way. The first time I was mostly entertained by the comedy of the work. This time, however, I was really moved by the way the Jewish faith was presented, especially their observance of the Sabbath.

Near the beginning of the film, we have this scene where the entire family gathers together at Reb Tevye’s house to celebrate the Sabbath. It is Friday evening, each family member is dressed up in his or her special Sabbath clothes. Each member – including the father, the mother, the daughters, and their guests – has a distinct function in the celebration. The whole experience is a beautiful ritual that is solemnly celebrated with great reverence. The ritual becomes our link with the past by which we unite ourselves with the faith of all those who have gone before us, who practiced the same rituals. They also serve to convey the deeper meanings of the celebration.

My appreciation for the Jewish observance of the Sabbath also grew after reading two books by the author Chaim Potok: The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969). I must admit that after reading these books, I truly felt ashamed that we Catholics (I can only speak from my own experience of the Church) downplay the importance of our Sabbath day, which is the Sunday. Apart from the profound significance of the Sabbath ritual that we see in Fiddler on the Roof, Potok mentions two other important aspects of the Sabbath that I found inspiring: family time, and Torah-Talmud study in the family.

Potok in his two books follows two Jewish families: a Hassidic family and a more liberal Jewish family. Both families spend the whole Sabbath day together, be it at table for meals, in the synagogue for prayer, studying the Torah and Talmud, or going outside for walks. The rest of the week is very busy for all, but the Sabbath is that special day when they all make it a point to be together.

The other key activity on the Sabbath is when the fathers of each family study the Torah and Talmud with their children. They often drill them with questions to challenge them. At other times they simply share their interpretation of the texts with them. Or, sometimes they even argue about what the texts mean. It is, in short, a time of deepening one’s knowledge and familiarity with the Scriptures and the Talmud. This could be comparable to parents and their children studying the Bible and the Church Fathers every Sunday. Perhaps a bit unrealistic, you think? But the reality is that many Hassidic families have this custom. For them, it is no burden; it is a delight to spend family time deepening their knowledge of the Lord.

Looking at our own practice of the Sabbath, the obvious question is: what has happened to our practice of the Sabbath? We seem to be all too content to designate that one hour on Sunday for Church, then go off and treat the day as if it were any other. But the truth is, it is the Lord’s Day, as Christian tradition has called it from the times of the Apostles. The Jewish traditions of the Sabbath have much to teach us still. The invitation is to treat this day with great reverence and ceremony, to intentionally spend time with out family, and together as a family, to strive to learn about Jesus. It is about priorities – with my free time, do I choose to offer it as gift to God and to family on this special, blessed day? If not, this is a great moment for self-examination to find out what is holding me back from this.

There are some very simple things that we can do to make our Sabbath more “Sabbath-like”. It may be as simple as making it a point to always eat all our meals on that day together, and beginning with a prayer, perhaps reading the mass readings of the day. Wearing one’s best clothes to mass is also a sign that this day is not the same as the other days of the week. Starting a family custom of going to the park together on Sundays is another popular one. Finally, doing something for our faith formation should be there: reading the writings of the saints, or watching a video about our faith, say Fr. Robert Barron’s videos on Catholicism. In this regard, the choices are limitless. What is needed above all, however, is our desire and will to make this come about.

I end with a beautiful quote by St. Ignatius of Antioch about the Christian Sabbath, Sunday: “Let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ.” (from the Letter to the Magesians)

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