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Yoffie Calls for Increased Shabbat Observance

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie Calls for Increased Shabbat Observance in Reform Movement
Focus on Shabbat Morning Worship and Individual Observance

SAN DIEGO, Dec. 15, 2007—Almost 150 years ago the founder of the Reform Movement transformed American Jewry by moving the major Shabbat worship service to Friday night, thus accommodating Jews who had to work on Saturday. Today the president of the Union for Reform Judaism began another major transformation, calling for a renewal of communal Shabbat morning worship and encouraging Jews to observe a full 24 hour day of rest.

In his Shabbat morning sermon at the Union’s Biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie told the 5,000 worshippers that Friday night prayer would remain vitally important, but that it was time to reclaim Shabbat morning worship, which too often has become a private ceremony for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah families.

“Our members who come to pray with the community often sit in the back of the sanctuary and feel like interlopers in their own congregation,” he said. “On Erev Shabbat, we invite members in, but on Shabbat morning, we drive them away.”

Yoffie, who started a revolution in Reform worship eight years ago when he asked congregational leaders to transform their Shabbat worship, said, “As proud as we are of this dramatic transformation, now is the time to step back and to see what remains undone. ”

There is in the Reform Movement a new openness to observing a weekly day of rest, he said, proposing a two-pronged approach affecting both the individual Reform Jew and Reform congregations.

“Reform Jews are considering Shabbat because they need Shabbat,” he said. “In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away, and the results are devastating. Do we really want to live in a world where we make love in half the time and cook every meal in the microwave?”

“When work expands to fill all our evenings and weekends, everything suffers, including our health,” he said. “For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible.”

“We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.”

Yoffie acknowledged that most Reform Jews are not yet ready to embrace a Shabbat that is separate and distinct from the rest of the week, “but our research indicates that we have more closet Shabbat observers than we realize,” he said. A recent survey by the Research Network of Tallahassee, FL, of more than 12,000 Reform Jews showed that 46 percent refrain from money-earning work on Shabbat and 39 percent try to make Shabbat a special day. (See related release)

Yoffie said the Shabbat observance he envisions “will not mean some kind of neo-frumkeit; it will not mean the Shabbat of eighteenth-century Europe; it will not mean an endless list of Shabbat prohibitions.

“It will mean instead approaching Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism. It will mean emphasizing the ‘Thou shalts’ of Shabbat—candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community—rather than the ‘Thou shalt nots,’” he said.

“The glory of Reform Judaism has always been its ability to reinvent itself to meet new spiritual situations.” Recalling that Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform Movement in America introduced the late Friday service in 1869, Yoffie said, “Because many Jews worked on Saturday, it literally saved Shabbat for the Jewish community. No other Reform innovation has had such long-lasting success.”

Yoffie acknowledged that changing the Shabbat morning worship will be difficult, in part because the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony is for many parents their most meaningful congregational experience. But too often, “worship of God gives way to worship of the child,” he said, railing at the “king” or “queen” for a day character of many services.

He noted, however, that there are congregations that have succeeded in changing their Shabbat morning worship, examples of which are included in the prepared materials. (See note to editor)

In challenging congregations to move forward with these initiatives, Yoffie suggested two approaches: the appointment of a Shabbat Morning Task Force to study and recommend how Shabbat morning worship might be reimagined, and the formation of a second group, a Shabbat Chavurah, that will come together for three to four months to create a Shabbat observance in an authentically Reform way. The Union has prepared study guides for both groups, a Shabbat website ( that will be regularly updated with new suggestions for the individual and the congregation, and a Shabbat blog ( where individuals can write about what Shabbat means to them and how they are trying to increase their observance of a day of rest.

“Renewing some form of regular Shabbat observance among the members of our Movement will take time, and what we are proposing is only the first step,” he said. “But surely we must begin. Shabbat, after all, is not just a nice idea. It is a Jewish obligation and one of the Ten Commandments—indeed the longest and most detailed of them all.”

The Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. Union services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.

Note to editors: Examples of successful strategies are included in the materials that are available online at Among the strategies found to successfully bring members into the Shabbat morning worship are the following:

Build, nourish and sustain a core group of worshipers and learners who create community, continuity and “ownership” of Shabbat day observance.

  • Temple Kol Ami, Thornhill, ON, built a strong, serious but accessible, Torah study group which became the congregation’s core worship group. A Kiddush luncheon for the entire community is offered every Shabbat morning.

Devote a number of Shabbats when no Bar or Bat mitzvah is held to intensive, full-day Shabbat programming for all ages and constituent groups.

  • Temple Beth El, Charlotte, NC, has one “congregational Shabbat” each month without a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The day begins with an educational program, text study, film, craft or mediation, followed by breakfast and Shabbat morning worship.

Move religious school from Sunday to Shabbat morning

  • Temple B’nai Torah, Bellevue, WAshifted its 7th graders to Shabbat. Students engage in Torah study and ten attend the service in the sanctuary; parents are encouraged to attend a parallel study program for adults and join in the worship.
  • Temple Beth Am, Losa Altos CA, offers Shabbat Religious School and has great success with its Shabbaton programs for families with children in grades Pre-K through 5th.


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