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As promised, another thoughtful comment from a friend about Shabbat and how it’s observed.  Toby wrote:

Shabbat in Jerusalem truly is consecrated time. I especially remember all the people walking in the street on their way home with arms filled with flowers, and how quiet the city became.

The challenge here is to recreate the experience of Shabbat in Jerusalem, or in summer camp, where everybody is sharing in the joy, when we live in a world where most people are going on with their busy daily lives.

For me, attending services, being part of a community which joins together to welcome and cherish Shabbat, gives a focus to my attempts to keep Shabbat separate and holy, kadosh, from the other days. I agree with Marden’s comments: it’s less about what we choose to do or refrain from doing than it is about the consciousness of doing those things that, to us, honor the spirit of Shabbat.

The Jewish Virtual Library makes a great point about Shabbat being misunderstood:

The Sabbath  is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not observe Shabbat think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer like the Christian Sabbath.

But to those who observe Shabbat, it is a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits…. It is said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.”

Many of my friends wrote movingly about the separateness of Shabbat, the beauty of observing a special day each week, the ways we can make it a holy time.  But like the Virtual Library, there was very little emphasis on prayer.

For me, prayer plays a major role in Shabbat observance.  In part, that’s because I don’t attend services during the week, so going to synagogue is part of what sets Shabbat apart from the rest of the week. 

So perhaps prayer is a side benefit of simply going to synagogue on Fridays and Saturdays.  Of course, going to synagogue isn’t a requirement for prayer.  I pray regularly on my own; a synagogue service isn’t necessary. 

It’s the appeal of communal prayer that draws me; on the most basic level, this is because of the effect music has on me.  Liturgical music is where I most easily enter into a spiritual plane.  Singing with others helps me reach the light trance that Marcia Prager speaks about as the result a combination of music, chant and sacred text in a communal prayer setting.

On a deeper level, communal prayer gives me a completely different experience than personal prayer.  It’s not just that I’m a social animal; it’s also because to me, religion goes beyond the private and personal.  It’s an extension of my personal self to being an active participant in the community.  It’s the part of me that I like best, the Jennifer that I want to be all the time.  I’m not always that person, of course.  (Unfortunately, I’m rarely that person.)  I’m very aware that I am far from being my ideal self. 

I turn to my religious community to help me be the person I aspire to be.  And I’m very grateful to the people who make up my prayer communities for all that they give me.