Our apartment in German Colony was only a ten-minute walk to the gardens that overlooked the old city. To the left stood the high limestone walls of Jerusalem, to the right Mt. Zion itself with its trees and tiers of white buildings, the blue cone roof of Dormition Abbey, beside it the white bell tower. In the evenings all that fall Melanie and I took walks to the gardens, the limestone walkways lined with rosemary, olive trees everywhere. And this view of Jerusalem.
We live here, we said to each other. That’s Jerusalem. That’s it. Right there.
But we also lived there. We went to the grocers, the post office, the ATM. The gas station, the butcher shop, the laundromat. I made my routine drives down to Tel Aviv to teach my courses and attend meetings. All that.
We lived there.
Which meant dealing with Shabbat. That pesky Saturday when nothing—or very little—was open. No news in how we Americans felt: Even though we are believing Christians, we still found it difficult to adjust.
Of course we were used to going where we needed to go and doing what we needed to do. Yes, we understood the holiness of the day, God’s call to observe the Sabbath one of those really real Commandments.
Still, those first few weeks we were sometimes a little piqued about the whole thing. Especially if we’d missed going to the grocer’s, or the butcher’s, or just wanted an Everything with Bulgarian cream cheese from the bagel place down the street.
But one Saturday early on we decided to take a mid-morning walk to the gardens, because there wasn’t a whole lot to do. And the bagel place was closed.
Here was the rosemary, the olive trees. The limestone walls of the city, that blue cone roof and bell tower.
But there were also people out walking. A lot of them. Young people, old. Families. Couples. Many were Orthodox of one kind or another, the men with their hats, the women with their long skirts and scarves. Boys with their kippahs, girls in pretty dresses.
Then the dim bulb of understanding came to us, the unsurprising no-news of what a Sabbath really is. The lifelong call finally, finally made manifest to the weak-eyed and hard of hearing.
This is a day off.
This is a day of rest.
And the Commandment in full seemed to fall into place: I have created you in My image, and I want you to enjoy one day of rest a week, because I know the joy of that peaceful day. This rest I offer you is so important it is in fact holy. So take this day off to rest in My Name.
Nothing new. At all. But a discovery we two made one Saturday morning in Jerusalem.
“Shabbat Shalom,” these people out walking in the gardens called to each other, and to us. Peace to you this Sabbath.
“Shabbat Shalom,” we said in return, and began to understand.
Bret Lott is the author of fourteen books, including three collections of essays. “Sabbath” is from his forthcoming collection Cherries on the Golan, Olives in Jerusalem.