Make Your Shabbat Green

Jonathan Schorsch, from the Green Sabbath Project, shares reflections in this guest blog post on how to rewild your Shabbat for an unexpected and profoundly powerful remedy for our era of environmental catastrophes. For more ideas, check out the OneTable + Green Sabbath Project guide on hosting your own Green Shabbat.

What happened on the eve of the very first Shabbat? According to one ancient Jewish myth, “When God created the first human [on the sixth day], God took them around to see all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at my work. How beautiful and perfect is everything that I created. I created it for you. Be careful not to ruin and destroy my world. If you ruin it, there is nobody to restore it after you’” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:28).

We have spent thousands of years struggling to remember this warning.

From the beginning, Shabbat has been subversive. Shabbat teaches – through law (halakha) and through creative interpretation (midrash) – that we are not anyone’s slaves, that there is much more to life than work, that profit at all costs destroys community and the world, that nature makes consciousness possible, that existence is a shared co-creation, and that existence is sacred. In our 24/7, FOMO world, it is hard to remember these truths.

Green Sabbath Graphic

Shabbat’s subversive power motivated me to start the Green Sabbath Project, just before the pandemic started, as it turned out. Recently, I’ve been going through texts from the past, looking for precedents for green Sabbaths (among both Christians and Jews) before our age of environmental awareness. I give you now a few examples, taken from these texts, of how Jews connected  Shabbat with nature, how they, as we say nowadays, rewilded Shabbat.

In the Lithuanian town of Svislovitz in the 1870s, “patches of wild grass” grew in the middle of the town’s only broad boulevard, Beresina Street. “On weekdays the children would play in the grass, but on Sabbath afternoons the burghers [citizens] themselves would lie there, face downward, enjoying life,” writes Shmarya Levin in Forward From Exile: The Autobiography of Shmarya Levin.

In this case, Shabbat brought about a minor sort of revolution, where the respectable elite behaved like children. Shabbat helps bring about a transfigured mindset whose communal nature creates its own reality; it makes possible another kind of existence. See what a bit of wild grass and an altered state of mind can do!

Mary Antin, whose 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land remains a beloved favorite of readers, beautifully described the childhood walks her family took on Shabbat outside of their hometown of Polotzk:Farther on, the empty road gave us shadows of trees and rustlings of long grass.

For Christians and Jews alike across Europe, a Sabbath stroll became a staple practice of this holy day.

Two Shabbat candles in front of a large window looking over a field of grass with a house in the background.

 […] Then, I know, we ran and played, and it was father himself who hid in the corn, and we made havoc following after.

 […] We had another stopping-place out in that direction. It was the place where my mother sent her hundred and more house plants to be cared for one season, because for some reason they could not fare well at home. We children went with them once; and the memory of that is red and white and purple.

 […] we turned at last, when the sun was set and the breeze of evening blew; and sometimes the first star came in and the Sabbath went out before we reached home and supper.

For Christians and Jews alike across Europe, a Sabbath stroll became a staple practice of this holy day.

Eli Evans, in his personal memoir of life in the American south, The Provincials (1973), recalled how:

As campers [in the 50s], we planned our own Friday night services, a special experience in the mountains. Sometimes we held them in a wooded glade transformed into an outdoor synagogue, where we sat tingling in the night air, bathed in the glory of a tinted sky, watching stars pop out during the service as the mountains turned into a massive black rolling background.

Love for the world (whether I think it comes from God or the other way around) isn’t an intellectual thing. It enters us viscerally, through the senses, through experiences, through ritual. This is the power of Shabbat.

Enjoy life and treasure it. Protect it! Make your Shabbat green and rewild it. Do nothing for 25 hours. Unplug, meditate on the inexplicable and miraculous nature of existence, go forest bathing, sing with your friends.

About the Author

Jonathan Schorsch serves as Professor of Jewish Religious and Intellectual History at the University of Potsdam (Germany). He founded the Jewish Activism Summer School (Berlin) in 2016 and the Green Sabbath Project in 2019.

OneTable empowers people who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. The OneTable community is funded to support people (21-39ish), not in undergraduate studies, and without an existing weekly Shabbat practice, looking to find and share this powerful experience.

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