When the Sun Sets Early, It’s a Race to Prepare for Shabbat

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It’s 4 p.m. on a cold December Friday. I type an email for work with one hand, stir a pot of zucchini lentil soup with the other and usher my two daughters out of the kitchen and into the playroom with my third, invisible hand.

My eyes are always on the clock, ticking down to my weekly deadline: sunset. Before the sun disappears below the horizon, I will stop whatever I am doing to light two white candles and recite a simple blessing in Hebrew to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.

My family lives according to traditional Jewish law, which includes observing the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. Our Sabbath starts as the sun begins to set on Friday and continues until after nightfall Saturday.

Right now, at the winter solstice, sunset in New York comes around 4:30 and there are only nine hours and 15 minutes of daylight — nearly six hours fewer than at the summer solstice in June. The early darkness is a mere inconvenience to many people, but to observant Jewish families the shorter days significantly change the rhythm of life.

According to the Old Testament, God made the world in six days, and stopped on the seventh to rest and admire his work, so we, too, stop our normal routine to enjoy the home we are working so hard to create. This day of rest doesn’t mean simply refraining from “work,” it includes prohibitions against writing, cooking and electricity. We prepare food in advance, put away our phones, pack up the crayons, turn off our screens and leave our cars parked in the garage.

Basically, we set aside one day every week as a day to turn off the outside world’s noise. And that means we have only six days to fit in a week’s worth of all of the normal errands and chores required of a modern home.

Soon after I light the candles, we set the table with our fancy dishes, put out the wine glasses and walk our dog. (These are chores still allowed on Shabbat.) Then, finally, we gather around the dining room table. My husband, Leron, and I look at each other and we take a collective breath and exhale.

Out with that breath goes the stress of a long week of work and the commotion of a busy family: the unrelenting weekly routine, the scheduling and preparing and endless to-dos. We have made it to another Friday night. For the next day the world around us will slow. We will stay in pajamas until after breakfast, linger over meals with neighbors, take naps, read books on our cozy couch, play games as a family or maybe take a walk outside if it’s not too cold. But everything else will have to wait; if it wasn’t already done, it won’t be done today.

In the summer, when sunset occurs after my children’s normal dinnertime, Fridays can feel like most other days of the week. Leron and I work full days, and we still have a generous window between work and sunset to set up our home for the Sabbath. This means setting timers on our lights, grabbing the stroller from our car, turning off the lights in our fridge, plugging in a warming tray to heat the food I’ve cooked in advance and anything else we need to do before sunset. If we forget to get the stroller out of the car, for example, we’ll be forced to make do without it — we won’t open the car door during Shabbat because the lights inside the car would go on.

But sometime in November, right after the end of daylight saving time, as we turn the clocks back an hour, the shorter days become a challenge. Fridays inevitably become a complex operations problem, figuring out how to cram in a full day of work, errands, Sabbath preparation and child care in half as much time.

On those days, I sometimes wonder whether keeping the Sabbath is making my life better or just harder. It means one less day to do laundry, to run to the supermarket, to browse the internet. As my children get older, that will be one less day to do homework, drive to the craft store for project supplies or take part in extracurricular activities. Shabbat certainly complicates life in a secular world.

But it also simplifies life — for one day a week, anyway. Saturday is the only day when you can find my family of four lying on the carpet in the playroom, building cities of Legos together. We read books as a family and finally have some time to talk about the week that just passed.

While many parents worry about screen time and the impact electronic toys are having on their children’s development, I have a one-day reprieve from such concerns. When my 2-year-old asks to watch her favorite television show on Saturday afternoon, my response, “Sorry, we don’t watch TV on Shabbat,” is enough to quiet her.

Saturday afternoon is the time I am most likely to pause to appreciate my family. I notice how mature my 4-year-old is becoming. She is so generous to the friends who come over for playdates, and she is always excited to take them on tours of her room. Our 2-year-old, too, is growing. I can see how hard she works to speak like her sister; her brain now holds more words then her mouth can handle.

In the winter, the Sabbath starts early enough for us to eat dinner together as a family, and still put the children to bed by 8 p.m. Then, Leron and I get to spend a few precious moments together in the quiet of our house. We discuss replacing the worn couch in the living room, and then muster the energy to play a board game or read a book next to each other (trying our hardest not to fall asleep).

Observing the Sabbath requires a certain amount of discipline to take a break from our digital media and entertainment, but it also forces us to be disciplined about taking time for ourselves and our family.

So, here I sit, with a dog who’s begging to be petted, to admire God’s work and mine. Although my home may not be as grand as the entirety of the universe, a moment listening to the click of Legos or the turning of a story book page is about as close to heaven as I can get.