Why I Don’t Play Guitar on Shabbat

I like to begin classes with a few minutes of guitar music.  It settles and focuses the mind and heart and takes us away from mundane preoccupations.  I usually joke that this is a secret bonus for people who study Torah with me, at least when it’s not Shabbat.

I was teaching in a program at a local synagogue this evening and after I said that as a transition to the text, one of the people asked me why I don’t play an instrument on Shabbat.  I first explained that I was taught that when our sages gave a reason for an enactment, there were always a number of reasons they didn’t mention.  Then I went on to the usual, superficial, explanation that the immediate concern was that a string might break and you could possibly forget it was Shabbat and change it.  However, since the only violation from changing a string is the same as touching the guitar in the first place, מוקצה, muktza, which means handling something that’s extraneous, and thus “excluded” on Shabbat, that explanation left a lot unsatisfied.  Then I mentioned a deeper reason, the post-Temple prohibition in order to remind us to mourn the destruction of the Temple and our resultant spiritual incompleteness.  This has often been explained with the image of the exile of the שכינה, the Shechina, the (feminine) Divine Presence, posing the question “how can we rejoice when the Shechina is in mourning?”

I paused for a moment, and then I thought of a reflection I’ve heard from several of the more spiritually-oriented leaders of our more liberal denominations, that if God and/or the sages realized just how long this exile would last, they wouldn’t have taken away the comfort of a little music on Shabbat.  I remember being inspired a number of years ago to try this logic out.  I decided that on a second in-exile day of Sukkot, in many ways less strict than the first day and certainly less so than on Shabbat, I would pick up my guitar and see how it felt to play in the Sukka.  I went to the wall where it always hangs, and for the first and only time in a half-century of guitar playing, a string had broken spontaneously and was unravelling on the wall.  I was overwhelmed with laughter and took it as a “message”.

Still, although I have never played on Shabbat, until this evening I have not really been satisfied with why I don’t.  But in the context of the discussion, it struck me that it’s vitally important for every Jew to really feel the continuing loss of Jerusalem and the Temple, not merely even today, but especially today.

Having been born in 1952, the State of Israel has been a reality my entire life.  But I remember the Sinai war in 1956, the War of Attrition, the 1967 War when we barely escaped total annihilation, Munich in 1972, the cowardly surprise attack from all sides on Yom Kippur in 1973, as well as all the terrorist attacks, the intifadas, the unprovoked attacks by Hizbollah and by Hamas.  Granted, I am consciously attached to Israel, even though I have lived most of my life in the United States.

And, although my parents and grandparents were fortunate to have escaped the Holocaust, I vividly remember my childhood where many of my beloved teachers and well more than half of my friends’ parents had numbers tattooed on their wrists.  The vulnerability of our people is not merely theoretical for me, but visceral.

But there is a different generation of Jews coming of age now.  Israel, and Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem is taken for granted.  In a world of myriad amusements and distractions, where so many at least superficial desires are immediately satisfied, it’s hard to remember that we do, in fact, lack some very important things.  The living miracle of the State of Israel and of the post-Holocaust recovery of the Jewish people is rarely even worth noting.  And for those reasons, too many Jews, and not only in our diaspora, but, shockingly in Israel itself, are supremely indifferent to Jerusalem, to Israel and, for that matter, to Jewish survival.

So, I began to realize this evening that the very act of denying myself a pleasure and a comfort every week reminds me and keeps always fresh the longing for a fully restored Jerusalem and a renewing of what we were able to achieve once, long ago, with our Holy Temple.

Perhaps it’s a matter of orientation.  People who tend to observe Shabbat also tend to formally pray three times a day.  Each of those prayer services include the longing for our return from exile, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of the Shechina to her holy residence, the Temple.  I don’t believe that it’s because observant people are somehow “better” than others that we tend to be much stronger in our support for Israel amid today’s almost overwhelming threats.  Rather, it’s that we force ourselves to confront the loss, to be hyper-aware that while we’ve made tremendous progress to date, we are still far indeed from reaching our, and the world’s, potential.

I will now daily pray to enjoy playing my guitar, along with all the other musicians of my people, in a fully revitalized and actualized Jerusalem.  במהירה בימינו, bimheyra b’yamenu, speedily in our day.

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