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Opinion: What Better Therapy Could There Be These Days Than Shabbat?

August 16, 2012
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Just before Havdalah one Saturday evening, the cantor of a synagogue I once belonged to recalled a casual conversation he had had with a psychiatrist who worked at a hospital where the cantor was employed as a technician.

"You Jews have it made," the psychiatrist said wryly.

The cantor was puzzled and asked the psychiatrist to explain.

"You see, unlike the rest of us," the psychiatrist said, "you have this day of rest when you close yourself off from daily routine, forget all your secular obligations and concerns, and immerse yourself in the warmth and peacefulness of the day. What better therapy can there be than the Jewish Sabbath?"

The cantor hadn't really focused on Shabbat for its remedial value before, but he could hardly disagree. Shabbat is, after all, a day of rest, at least in terms of taking a respite from the secular world. Its benefits, however, lie not just in the respite but in the spiritual connections and cultural amenities it offers, which can have a salubrious effect on the observer.

Our world is as complicated as it is modern. From home to the world stage, many things may stress us out: kids, siblings, parents, friends, money, job, school, lifestyle, peer pressure, military service, health issues, crime, the economy, politics, the threat of war, traffic, finding a good babysitter and oh, so much more. It's enough to make anyone feel a need to get away from it all.

For people of the Jewish faith, that reprieve comes once a week.

Shabbat is a religious day first, foremost -- and fundamentally. But it is inherently a day of joy that, with its services, its abstention from certain secular activities and its festivities offers much to the dedicated observer.

Beginning from 18 minutes before sunset on Friday and lasting until the appearance of the first three stars in the night sky on Saturday eve, the Sabbath occupies just 25 hours out of the 168-hour week.

It is a special time that is its own world with its own special gratifications. The rewards are bountiful, to be sure, but they are not always easy to reap.

Come Friday as the sun is setting, it takes a bit of mental finesse to forget one's secular woes and enter a hallowed dimension devoid of work and wire.

For some, the transition from a world of bills, keyboard clicks and life management to holy domain is difficult to make. But with willingness and perseverance, observers can unhinge themselves from worldly pressures.

The Shabbat journey begins with the lighting of the candles on Friday. The flame symbolically illuminates the home and, with the right attitude, the hearts of its occupants. That warm glow may continue to shine long after the wax has melted.

With the arrival of Shabbat an array of delights now awaits the dedicated observer, all of which can foster good emotional health. The religious services, from Friday evening to the concluding service and Havdalah, frame the treasures it offers. The services offer spiritual connection and meaning and context to life.

Those precious hours of Shabbat constitute a sublime time -- a time to look inward, remember, reflect, learn, get lost in reveries, sort things out, aspire, make resolutions. It is a time to bond with family and friends. It is a time to teach young ones the richness of Judaism. It is a time to build community. It is a time to walk, to enjoy nature, to appreciate life and the world.

This spiritual harmony comes once a week -- every week of the year. Jewish folk who can imbibe the spirit of Shabbat, who can filter out the secular world and revel in the day's glories, will, in the words of that perspicacious psychiatrist who well understood the therapeutic value of Shabbat, "have it made."

Harvey Rachlin, a native of Philadelphia, is an award-winning author of 13 books and a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.

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