Shabbat and the Settlements: Palaces in Time and Space (Ideas #125)

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot 
                                                            (Joni Mitchell)

Last Shabbat was one of those magically beautiful Jerusalem days.  The skies were pleasantly overcast, there was a bit of a breeze and the air was clear – it was a day that called out for experience. Being thus called, one should not refuse. So I decided to take a walk though the central streets of the city and to the Kotel.

I walked alone, enabling me to really notice what Jerusalem looks like on the Shabbat. There were many other people taking walks, but most were clearly indoors, typically home with family and friends. As I got closer to my destination, I passed a couple of yeshivot, where the assembled students were melodiously savoring the last few minutes of the day. When I finally reached the Kotel, I looked around at all the different types of Jews around me. Small and large groups gathered communing with each other and with God. Others stood alone in meditation, in study or in prayer. Among the latter was my coffee merchant who has a store right outside the shuk – the open air market. My coffee man doesn’t usually wear a kippa, but he does sport an earring. That day, he didn’t notice me because he was fervently praying, keeping the small makeshift kippa on his head with one hand while reaching toward the skies with the other.

The coffee store was closed. In fact, every store I passed was empty of owner and customer alike – the seventh day in Jerusalem is not a day for commerce. Instead, a majestic tranquility fills the air.

A few cars made their way on the otherwise quiet streets. Some foreign workers were using public phones at street corners and generally looking for something to do. They were joined by a few tourists who were doing the same – the travel guides warn them to avoid the city on Shabbat. There was some drilling going on in one building and Arab merchants in the OldCity peddling their wares to Israelis looking for something to do on their weekend. But the exceptions to the Shabbat tranquility made it paradoxically even more noticeable.

 It was as if the streets were saying that Jerusalem is not New York and it is not Tel Aviv. Yes, it has a large secular population living alongside the religious, but it is a city that observes Shabbat even if there are many residents who do not. It is a consciously Jewish city.


And then there are the settlements.  The vast majority of these townlets and villages are also Shabbat observant. People live in them for many of the same reasons that religious Jerusalemites live in Jerusalem. You go there for public Shabbat observance and modest dress. You go there to live a distinctly Jewish life.  In these places, there is also a love affair with a land that seems to embrace its long-lost inhabitants as much as they embrace it. These are places where the surroundings speak in Biblical metaphor, teaching its inhabitants through its trees, its animals and its very rocks.

There is a grandeur and beauty to public Shabbat observance that must be experienced to be understood. There is also a certain majesty and historical moment to the Jewish people resettling its ancestral land that cannot be known without living it.

These are not small matters. In the era of Jewish rebirth, we need to know what it is to live as a Jewish nation in its land. So if others want to make room for me, it means making room for public Shabbat observance. If the world wants to make room for my nation, it means making room for the conviction that the Jews have an organic connection to their ancestral homeland.

I will not be among those who protest aloud, as I understand the other side all too well – I cannot feel that I am the only one who should be allowed to live out who I am. But if and when parking lots are opened on Shabbat; if and when Jewish settlements are uprooted from the land that was especially chosen for my ancestors to live a holy life, I will be much poorer for it. And when the Jewish experience is diluted, it is mankind as a whole who suffers at his very core.