There are only two rituals in Jewish life – Brit Milah (circumcision) and Shabbat – that the Torah describes using the terms Os, Bris v’Doros, a sign and a covenant for the generations (TB Shabbos 131b). The Brit Milah clearly symbolizes generational covenantal continuity, as it is a Mitzvah performed by parents on their eight-day-old child, demonstrating and perpetuating their commitment to raise that child with a strong Jewish identity. The placement of the sign specifically on the child’s reproductive organ underscores this message, such that the identity is not being passed simply from the parent to this child, but to all those who will ultimately be born from him. Truly a sign of a covenant for the generations.
Why are the same terms used in describing the Shabbat?
Because there is nothing nearly as effective as Shabbat in establishing connection and continuity between the generations.
Shabbat is a precious and multi-faceted gift that we owe it to ourselves to reflect upon periodically. Amongst its many benefits, we recognize that the experience of Shabbat establishes and uplifts the tone of our homes and the dynamic between family members. Shabbat brings us together after a week where we are all constantly driving and driven in different directions. Shabbat presents the opportunity to connect, to share everything from the week’s experiences to our current feelings, trading Torah thoughts and joining in songs of praise.
Shabbat is truly a sign of a covenant for the generations.
One might have thought to reserve these grand terms for the Pesach Seder, an event that is otherwise associated with the Brit Milah, and that has as its clear goal the transmission of our history and heritage to future generations. But the Torah chose to use these terms in describing Shabbat. The weekly experience of sharing Shabbat and its relatively simple rituals accomplishes continuity, even without the majesty and richness of the Seder and its Haggadah text.
The positive, generational effect of eating regular dinners together is well-known. A widely-discussed study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (http://www.casacolumbia.org/articlefiles/380-Importance%20of%20Family%20Dinners%20IV.pdf), concluded that the single most effective parental undertaking to reduce the risk of their children’s pursuit of behaviors such as alcoholism and substance abuse is to eat family dinners together. Children provided with the presence and the attention of engaged parents are more likely to assume their cherished values. How much more so when a family shares a Shabbat dinner, where parental engagement is heightened and the entire atmosphere elevated.
A number of years ago, we called an appliance repairman to our home. A few years earlier we had installed a microwave oven with a built-in exhaust fan over the kitchen stove. The plastic oven door had melted and cracked, rendering the oven unsafe. The repairman was not surprised by the call. He explained that these appliances were built for the average American family, where full course meals are prepared for Thanksgiving and a few other annual occasions. “In this (Orthodox) community, you cook up feasts every weekend. These appliances are not made to withstand that kind of use.”
The sense of extended family in American life is built around the Thanksgiving table; in Jewish life, around the Seder table. Shabbat brings that spirit, that sense of family, into our homes and lives each and every week, encouraging warm ties and strong connections, and the sharing of our values, our stories and our dreams.
Yes, Shabbat is truly a sign of a covenant for the generations.