The celebration of Shabbat is meant to be the high-point of the week. Indeed, it is considered proper for one to spend time each day preparing for the coming Shabbat. In order to ensure that people understood the appropriate ways of honoring Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud discussed at length what is appropriate to eat, to drink, to wear and how to prepare one’s home for Shabbat.
The rabbis even discussed the importance of bodily preparations for the holy day:
“This was the practice of Rabbi Judah ben Il’ai: On the eve of Shabbat, a basin filled with hot
water was brought to him, and he washed his face, hands, and feet, and he wrapped himself and sat in fringed linen robes, and was like an angel of the Lord of Hosts” (Talmud Shabbat 25b).
This may not seem very significant to those of us who live in the twenty-first century. After all, living with electricity and running water allows us to enjoy a hot shower every day. However, in the days when a hot bath was a luxury most often attended to at a bath house, Rabbi Judah ben Il’ai’s actions demonstrate the importance of preparing oneself physically to greet the Sabbath Queen.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that the Jewish customs of frequent hand-washing and the high value placed on personal cleanliness may actually have had an impact on world history. In the Middle Ages, when entire villages were at times decimated by the Black Plague, Jews had a significantly lower rate of infection. Unfortunately, many peasants assumed that this was because the Jews were spreading the disease or poisoning the wells.
If only they had known that the plague was spread by fleas on rats, and that the Jewish populace was far less effected because of the natural hygiene built into Jewish observance.
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