What is the Sabbath Bee?

This website is the outcome of a game that I play every week with Shabbat. It is midrash—a living re-interpretation, a story designed to bring new ideas into an ancient institution and pull fresh understandings from a heavily examined religious structure.

For those familiar with the mystical side of Judaism or the Friday night liturgy, there’s nothing unusual about referring to Shabbat (or Shabbos, the Sabbath, Day of Rest, the Seventh Day, and other pseudonyms I’m sure I’m forgetting) as “the bride” or “the queen.” The white dress and the crown require a sizeable mental leap, since in our everyday comparisons of this-to-that, we rarely go so far as to compare days to people. I would probably get weird reactions if I tried telling a friend that he was like a breath of Thursday, and most personifications of days of the week invariably end with clichéd images—Monday with his briefcase, Sunday reading the paper during a leisurely breakfast.

In Shabbat’s case though, the talk of brides and queens is all about big, transcendent emotional connections. Shabbat demands certain behaviors, and the Jewish people scramble to obey these commands. The Jewish people are married to Shabbat because we’ve sworn an oath of loyalty to this day—with all of the grandeur and restrictions that a lifelong contract might entail. Every week is an opportunity to prepare a celebratory feast, to await sunset with the joy and jumping-up-and-down excitement of a groom about to meet his bride.

However, pictures of brides and queens can only tell some of the story. There are things that are true of Shabbat but not true of a bride. There are times when Shabbat might be more like a visiting uncle than a queen. And really, how should people within a representational government feel about queens? By calling Shabbat a queen, am I saying that it is respected, powerful and compassionate or am I calling it an impotent a symbol of an outdated system?

Also, I sometimes prefer to drop the bride imagery for something a little more heterosexual. Sometimes. Femininity is so deeply ingrained into Shabbat that it often feels… wrong… to give this day a Y chromosome. Still, if Shabbat can be a queen, doesn’t it stand to reason that he can also be a grandparent? Or a blanket? Or, to take an idea from the Kabbalist Shlomo Halevi, the ruins of a mighty city? How about a jealous girlfriend that sabotages your relationships with other people? There are definitely times in my life when Shabbat is the jealous girlfriend.

That brings up another reason why I put together the Sabbath Bee. Shabbat is different every week, because we are different every week. Sometimes Shabbat shows up with dancing shoes, other weeks with a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story. Whether or not it should be, Shabbat cannot be a wedding banquet every week. Sometimes the table is set and guests are arriving with covered casseroles, other times a quick shower and a sandwich are all I can manage before sunset. One week I might say, “Oh, it’s Friday again!” and the next, “Oh. It’s Friday. Again?” Shabbat can evoke both emotions, and everything in between.

Therefore, each week I let Shabbat come as it will. Some weeks Shabbat might be happy to give me a quick hug and let me return to my conversation with friends, while other nights the prospect of a mystical joining is so exhilarating that Shabbat and I run off to the nearest janitor’s closet together.

I hope that some of the vignettes will resonate and maybe even help my readers to expand their own ideas and feelings about Shabbat. Some of the passages, I know, will be meaningless or even off-putting to some. I sincerely hope that none come across as offensive. A living tradition inhales and exhales, and concepts that are greater than human endeavor cannot be fully described by any single finite comparison—or even a cacophony of them. Still, hundreds of thousands of facets all taken together might form a reasonable outline of crystalline perfection.

How did this project start?

I made my first Shabbat image in late 2007. It was on Shabbat Noach, at the end of the holidays—a day that I later dubbed Shabbat Normal because it was our first return to the regular weekly rhythm after a month of joyful, soul-searching, thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable holiday upsets.

The timing is significant because, due to that year’s series of three day holidays and Yom Kippur’s invasion of Shabbat, we had gone for a solid month without offering a single welcoming party for the Sabbath bride. It was as if she had come in quietly through the service entrance week after week, ceding her position to the visiting dignitaries of the month of Tishrei.

I didn’t realize how much I had missed her grand entry until the evening of Shabbat Normal, when we began to sing. I cannot write with certainty that the spirit in the room was better on that night than on any other night, but it felt to me that everyone in the room was just as enthusiastic as I was about finally bringing Shabbat back to her place of honor. We welcomed the Sabbath bride not like a weekly visitor but like a long-awaited, yearned-for beloved.

During L’kah Dodi, as we sang about the arrival of Shabbat and the tune quickened halfway through the song, I felt that Shabbat herself was sharing our eagerness for a true reunion. Excitement drummed through me while voices thundered similar sentiments and words of welcome from all sides. The whole community seemed to be saying, person by person, “Finally, it can be just me and you again—with no distractions.” When we turned to the door to greet Shabbat, she entered as if on New Years Eve—with champagne, confetti and a breath-hitching kiss.

That evening’s reunion gave me a more intimate appreciation of Shabbat than any that I had experienced before, demonstrating what the Kabbalists meant by “the bride” and “the queen.”

Without meaning to at first, I began making up new Shabbat images every week. I kept them inside my head for about half a year, until a bleary-eyed post-Purim Shabbat story was funny enough that I wanted to share it. The positive responses I received from friends made me think that perhaps other people would be interested as well, so I began recording them week by week.

Tell me about the vignettes.

As a rule, I come up with an image for the week’s Sabbath Bee while singing L’kha Dodi on Friday night. Somewhere between the first and last lines, inspiration always strikes. The Sabbath Bee of the week will appear, full-formed and ready to be written. Unfortunately, by the time I actually write it down—usually Sunday afternoon—I practically have to make up the story again from scratch. To make each week’s Shabbat feel like a word picture, or a brief moment in time, I restrict my entries to 150 words each, not including the titles. My goal is to keep them short and readable, somewhere in the grey area between poetry and prose. (Note: Each entry is back-dated to the Friday when the action took place.)