On October 23rd and 24th, the Shabbos Project aims to unite over one million Jews worldwide by running dozens of special programs encouraging Jews to observe the holiness of the Shabbat (Sabbath) day. At a time when the Jewish world seems to be growing increasingly polarized regarding many issues, the Shabbos Project is attempting to bring together Jewish groups and communities from around the world with one shared Shabbat.
The Biblical commandment of keeping the Shabbat, the day on which God rested after creating the world (Exodus 20:11), is fourth of the ten commandments given by Moses to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12). Keeping the Shabbat involves two factors: “remembering” the Shabbat by fulfilling the positive commandments of the day, and “guarding” the Shabbat by refraining from prohibited conduct.
The Shabbos Project encourages local individuals to come up with creative ways of publicizing the fact that they intend to keep the Shabbat as mandated by the written and oral laws of Judaism. The organizers hope that the creative publicity will raise awareness and inspire other Jews to join the project.
Last year’s creative methods included a South African initiative by schoolchildren to wear special brightly colored shoelaces to show that they were participating in the event. In South Africa, school uniforms mandate that shoelaces be either black or gray. The bright color of the shoelaces stood out, showing that the wearer was proud to observe the special day and encouraging others to participate as well. (Schools involved gave special permission allowing the shoelaces.)
Another idea was the ‘park bench’ initiative, in which park benches were plastered with the slogan, “Taking a day out of life to live.” The benches were placed at mass transit locations, outside synagogues and at other highly visible points throughout the city. This initiative focused specifically on one of the many positive aspects of Shabbat observance: taking time out of one’s busy schedule to spend on reflection, relaxation and family.
In the high-tech world of non-stop communication, mass media and constant work, “We are all desperate for permission to close our minds to work, to stop and smell the roses”, according to the Shabbos Project website, which provides tips on how to observe the Shabbat and connects individuals interested in participating with programs around the world.
The concept began in Johannesburg, the largest Jewish community in South Africa, in 2013. It quickly spread as a grassroots movement via social media. Two years later, it has gone global. It has been referred to as a ‘holy global flash mob’.
The goal of the project is to allow Jews from all walks of life to join together in one of the most profound and central Jewish traditions, and to rest, reflect and rejuvenate as part of the Jewish community. Organizers of the 2015 event expect more than 500 cities to participate and over one million people to sign up.
Some of the events planned for the 2015 Shabbat include synchronized challah baking, communal meals, special prayer services, concerts heralding the Havdalah ceremony, which closes the Shabbat on Saturday night, as well as some other celebrations which will last into the week.
Project founder Dr. Warren Goldstein, who is also the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, explained the impetus behind the project, saying, “We are constantly pulled in different directions by distractions, demands, and onerous responsibilities that pile up with increasing speed.”
Goldstein said that the idea of celebrating Shabbat gives a person the opportunity to really “be present” – something which he believes is lacking in modern society.
Goldstein explained why he picked this specific commandment to go viral. “Shabbat enables us to momentarily set aside the distractions, demands and pressures of daily life, offering us the time and space to renew our inner selves, and to revisit and reinvigorate our most important relationships,” he said.
More important than that, however, was the potential that Goldstein saw for the uniqueness of the Shabbat experience to unify Jews across the globe in a way that they haven’t been unified for quite some time. “We thought that Jewish unity was actually a pipe dream and some kind of utopia that we would never get to. The Shabbos Project gave us a taste of what that could be,” Goldstein concluded.