the sabbath of return

This, the first Sabbath after the new year, situated as it is, between the start of the new year and the day of atonement, is called the ‘Sabbath of Return’. At the start of the new year, we celebrate the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new. We are ready to bury the past, to forget the failures of the year that was, and to fix our thoughts and hopes on the new year, wishing each other, and ourselves, a sweet year; a year of prosperity and happiness. We decorate the banquet table with all the signs we can think of, to indicate positive things. But I have mentioned soul searching, the ten days of awe… the day of atonement… And those of my readers who are not intimate with the Jewish religion, and not involved with any other religious discipline, may have asked themselves, “just what is he searching for… in all of this soul searching” ?


So what better day than today, on the eve of the Sabbath of return, to share with you some thoughts on the subject. For on New Year’s day, I was eating bread dipped in honey, and my heart was filled with joy, and on the day of atonement, I will be fasting, and conversing with my heart and soul. But today, I am trying to see things in the proper perspective. This Sabbath, I will make an effort to return to myself and to my creator, and try to understand where I went wrong, where I failed and why, in the hope that I’ll be able to overcome these failures, and do better in the year to come.

If you write a blog… or you write letters, or stories, or poems… you probably have had the experience of checking something you wrote, looking for mistakes… and finding some… and then at a later date, rereading what you wrote a while back, and all of a sudden, finding some mistakes that you didn’t catch in time. And maybe wondering, ‘why didn’t I see that’. And the answer is, that even while we were rereading what we had been writing, we were seeing what we intended to write… we were contemplating the message that came from our mind, and not really seeing the words as a stranger might. We were not objective enough. And when it comes to examining our mistakes and failures, we have a lot of defenses. It is real work to deal with that subject. We don’t want to think about it. And so, our teachers have prepared lists for us, to help us direct our thoughts. This is, in fact, a prayer and a confession, and it is whispered privately to one’s self, and also read publicly in the congregation. The confession is in the first person plural. On the day of atonement, it is sung in unison by the congregation. The words are arranged alphabetically (in Hebrew), to make them easier to remember. And it starts, “we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have libeled”.

I remember myself, as a very young man, standing in the synagogue, and reciting the words, printed on the page, and suddenly glancing a little to my left, and seeing one of the old men of the congregation, reading from the same page, and pounding his chest with his fist to emphasize each word… and wondering how this righteous old man could possibly have committed all these sins. I knew in my heart, that this wasn’t just empty ceremony. It was the time of the ‘holidays’, so I had to wait about a month till I could talk to my teacher, and ask him to explain to me what I had seen. I was so lucky. I had a fine and wise teacher. And he explained more than a few things to me. But since that time, I have continued to learn, and I am still learning now.

My dear teacher, Rabbi Yisroel, explained that each person has his own standard, that he tries to live up to. That for one person, the spilling of blood was a euphemism for wounding or killing another human being… even while performing a justifiable function… like that of a soldier or a policeman. Sometimes, even when a man is doing the right thing, for instance, self defense… he senses after the fact, that he could have avoided the shedding of blood. But on the other hand, a righteous man, who never has raised his hand in anger, is on such a high level, that even causing another man to blush is considered ‘spilling blood’. And he too, might feel the same sense of failure when considering his act, that the first man felt.

Years later, I had another question answered by another teacher… Why would the whole congregation sing the confession, ‘we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have libeled’, as if a merry tune? How could such terrible words be sung to such a beautiful melody, and everyone singing together, as if they were on a picnic? Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael explained that for the city to exist, we need carpenters and brick layers and engineers and doctors. And that we need musicians and people who repair the sewer. And how wonderful it is that some people earn their living by playing sublime music all day long. ‘What do you think’, he asked. ‘That the people working in the sewer hang their heads all day long, and trudge through all that shit, as unhappy as can be? No. They work together with a sense of comradeship, and crack jokes to each other to encourage one another, and sing as they work. When we work on ourselves’, he said, ‘we have to work in the same spirit. Not to be happy just when we make beautiful music. But to work on our spiritual plumbing the way they work underground in the city, with a smile on our faces, and a song on our lips. That is the highest level of repentance.

I could go on, but the Sabbath is approaching. My best wishes to all my friends.


64 responses to “the sabbath of return

  1. Blessings and peace to you on the first Sabbath of the new year … and thanks for allowing me to learn through your reflections.

  2. wishing you a sweet year Shimon 🙂

  3. This is an amazing post. Your reflections and explanations remind all of us of our humanity, good and bad, and of who we are individually. I was very touched, by your recollections of the conversations with your Rabbis, where there’s a aura of not only honor but love. Gmar Chatima Tova!

    • Yes, I have a great love for my teachers. They opened up so many paths for me. I am very glad that you enjoyed this post, Rachel. There is so much to think about on this subject. I would like to write more. Thank you for your good wishes, and a Gmar Chatima Tova to you too.

  4. Fascinating….. and Catholics do similar at each Mass as I’m sure you are aware – recite together that we have sinned in our words and in our thoughts and in what we have done and in what we have failed to do etc and in unison ask forgiveness of God and of each other etc and of course this practice will have come from your religion…… and I always find it moving.

    Lovely to read this post – I do love your thoughts and explanations of your religious practices in their own right as well as knowing my religion stems out of yours. Thank you for sharing. xxx

    • Thank you very much, Rosie. Yes, I am aware of the many similarities in our two religions. Just as there are many universal aspects to the human being, so the objectives of many different religions actually try to help man live a more meaningful life in much the same way. Always good to hear from you.

  5. I’ve just decided to read your post to my guests on Tuesday night!

  6. This is a beautiful explanation, Shimon. Thank you. Shabbat Shalom veKetivah veChatimah Tovah.

  7. A very fine exposition of why you do this and how it feels to be taking part now and how you felt many years ago.I imagine that being with others and singing the same words admitting failures can be a really moving experience.. and the analogy with the sewer workers in interesting.My grandfather was a coal miner from age 14 to 64.They used to sing hymns and songs of the type we don’t hear much nowadays.And when he was old I met some of them in the street and they clearly felt strongly for each other.
    I can see the advantage of sharing this experience rather than doing it at home by yourself…
    And for very scrupulous people who feel too much a sense of sin,to see others openly showing their sense of sin could be very helpful..After all we are humans not gods.
    I know this is aspecial Sabbath and hope it will be a beautiful one,Shimon.

    • Yes, we are all human, and have many faults in common… and also many ideals in common. One of our hardest problems, is that we can see a world more perfect than we are… and there is often that conflict between our ideals and our knowledge of our own weaknesses. Thank you for your good wishes, Kathryn. As always, I appreciate your words.

  8. There is so much wisdom in your words here. I appreciated the new understanding very much. Thank you, Shimon!

  9. Best wishes to you Shimon. Lovely post.

  10. Wish you peace and happiness Shimonz
    absolutely loved how you explained soul searching with blogging…it is to me a must in my journey that i stop, take a pause and look within and take out the weeds….
    May this journey enrich you and refresh your soul 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Soma. I agree with you, that a very important part of maintaining one’s balance, is stopping and taking a pause from time to time. Thank you again for your good wishes, which reflect my own prayers too.

  11. Thank you so much Shimon for such an interesting post. Enjoy your Shabbat.

  12. I like your explanation that the mistakes we make are not always seen by us at the time, but only if we give ourselves the time and opportunity to look back. It is necessary to be very honest, because the Almighty sees everything, and there is nowhere to hide, so we might as well be prepared to stand in the light of His truth in the first place!

    I do enjoy learning more about your faith. Thank you.

    • Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you, Gill, on the subject of hiding. Because there are many of us who hide… sometimes even from ourselves, even though the Almighty sees everything. But of course, I understand what you’re saying. And yes, this process of examining ourselves is part of stepping into the light, and is a great blessing for us all. Thank you so much for your comment.

  13. Shabbat Shalom Shimon, and wishes for a healthy and sweet year. Your explanation is beautifully wrought and the concept of plumbing the depths of ourselves during this period of reflection resonated deeply with me. Thank you..

    • Shavuah tov, Mimi. And thank you very much for your good wishes, and mine to you and your family. Yes, it is good to do some cleaning up in our minds and souls too. So glad you enjoyed the post.

  14. Blessing and Happiness on your first Sabbath. Love, nia

  15. Thank you for sharing your wisdom…it speaks to my heart and gives me a deeper undrstanding…Shabbat Shalom

  16. As always, a fascinating post. What does “Shabbat Shalom” mean? Just noted it up there in the blog. I literally feel that I am daily looking into myself for atonement and more. As a surgeon, I’ve drawn blood on a Lot of people, both young and old, But, I feel renewed, and justified that I’ve helped them.

    • I am glad you enjoyed this post, Bob. “Shabbat Shalom” means a Sabbath of peace, and it is a common greeting and blessing before and during the Sabbath. I am able to identify with you entirely, on what you’ve said about atonement. I have read the words of wise men, who said that the act of atonement brings on a new year, even if it happens again and again within the same year. Some people think that you have to be a real hardened criminal to repent. But we know that a sensitive person often examines himself, and wonders if he’s made a mistake… and repents. There are so many thoughts I have on this subject… I stopped in this post, because I felt I’d said enough, but I do think I’ll have to write about it again… and more. And yes, I often use the example of the surgeon, because he draws blood, and uses a knife… but it is for the sake of the patient. And from this we learn what a tremendous difference there is in different intentions. It is always good to see you, and to share my thoughts with you, my friend.

  17. I forgot to ask, what is the wooden structure against the stone wall with a man in a hat sitting in front of. An altar? Why there? What’s on/in it? I’m learning slowly. 🙂

    • You always ask good questions, Bob. That wooden structure is called an ark. It is a closet in which scrolls of the five books of Moses are kept (as well as other books). The scrolls are hand copied with ink on parchment, exactly as they have been for the last 3500 years, and are considered holy. When we open them to learn from them, we kiss the scroll, and the same when we close them. The scrolls are called torah.

  18. I was making a last minute run through blogs before closing the computer down for Shabbos when I came across this post. Thank you for reminding me of what this Shabbos, and this time is about. Shana Tova v G’mar Chatima Tova.


  19. Blessings on you and much wisdom in the coming year.

  20. A lovely post, thank you for the insight.

  21. So beautiful, Shimon…it seems the world’s great religions all have these invitations for us to encounter our shadows and reorient ourselves/our egos to our rightful place in centered humility and love. Great peace to you in this holy practice, and thank you for enlightening us all.

    • Thank you very much Catherine. Yes, there are many paths to the heart and soul, and they offer us balance and clarity, and much love too. Thank you for your good wishes. It is always a blessing to converse with you and to share of the richness of this world.

  22. How true that we do not always see our mistakes straight away – sometimes it takes minutes and sometimes it takes years. I think it is important to stop and look back on and learn from them. I wish you and your family well over the Fast. Best wishes.

    • Yes Jacquie, so often we are carried along by our own inertia, and preoccupied with plans and desires… but it is so good then, to finally take a pause, and do a virtual clean up in our own inner rooms. What a blessing it offers us. Thank you for your good wishes, and my best to you too.

  23. Wonderful reflections. I particularly like the metaphor of reviewing a written piece and missing something that was not right because we see what we expect or want to see. Thank you and warm wishes for you and yours in this next year.

    • I used to sit for hours in the dark room, as I worked on photography. And I realized eventually, that we can learn the deepest truths, starting anywhere… It was such a precious revelation. So when blogging, I find the connection there too. Thank you, winsomebella, for your kind wishes, and my best wishes to you and your loved ones too.

  24. Thank you for this, for sharing and explaining and giving examples. The mentor who explained to you was a gift, and you are our gift for explaining to us. I was especially touched by how you explained the process of realizing our mistakes, finally recognizing them even though they were there all along.
    Again, thank you.

    • Thank you very much, Marylin, for coming by, and for your kind comment. I have taken a look at your blog, and found we have some very significant things in common. I wish you many sweet visits with your dear mother. I still learn from my mother… even though I am an old man, and she is still older. She asks me sometimes, ‘you’re already an old man; what am I?’ and I answer, you’re ancient, and we both laugh.

  25. I so enjoy the way you explain this. We need these times to examine our lives, make corrections, and start anew.

  26. There is a lot of depth to these thoughts, the layers seem simple, yet they are not; a year is not enough time to think it through, neither is one day. A lifetime of contemplation just may offer some subjective enlightenment to individuals. We are metaphorically a moving and changing sea, and so should be our contemplations and our personal revelations.

    A very special post Shimon.

    • Thank you, menhir. There are many ways to approach such a thing… some folks need a lifetime of contemplation, and others, a quick look in the mirror, before they go out.

  27. Beautifully written..I love this idea of working on ourselves with “a smile on our faces, and a song on our lips.” Something to aim for I think..and so important to find time for this type of contemplation..a very thought provoking and honest post – thankyou!

    • Thank you very much, Cath. I’m very glad that it spoke to you. And forgive me for taking so long to respond. Life had been very intense in recent weeks. The holiday is still not over. But I have taken a little time off today, and taken my little computer out of my backpack, to try and make contact with friends.

  28. This is extremely interesting to me. I think we often hide from ourselves, and hide behind things…it can be very painful to be truthful to yourself and admit to errors of judgement and sin. xxxxx

    • Yes, Dina… it’s so natural for us, to avoid thinking about painful things… to put off those chores we don’t like. But unfortunately, when we carry them around in our hearts, they grow heavier and heavier. So it’s good when we have a particular time and circumstance devoted to this work. Thank you for your comment.

  29. I have a very different world-view, Shimon, but I have enjoyed, have always thus far, enjoyed reading about yours…always a pleasure learning how your tradition and ritual comfort and uplift you. Thank you….

    • Yes, Scott. You bring up an important point. Each of us has to find his own solution to some of these problems, even though they are universal. Each culture, and each tradition does it a bit differently. Our culture is an ancient one… so sometimes we’re at a loss at how to deal with modern problems. I myself am very grateful for all I’ve learned from the west, though sometimes I criticize western society as well.

  30. Your concluding paragraph made me laugh, only because it’s so true. I love the photograph. X

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Janet. I know we have had many common experiences, and come to similar attitudes about life, and so, it’s always a pleasure for me to read your blog… and likewise a great pleasure when I can share with you my thoughts and photos.

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