The Intersection of Music and Shabbat


In my four years as the music leader for the Georgetown Jewish community, I have seen Jewish life grow and prosper. Our Shabbat attendance has quadrupled, from 15-20 people to ~65-80. For the larger Shabbats, we have about 150 students in attendance. We are fortunate to have a spectacular new ark to hold our Torahs crafted from Fire Birchwood to denote the flame of life the Torah represents to our people. In their constant support of our community, Dean Hellman of the SFS and President John DeGioia were present at the dedication of the ark. We have, for the first time, official prayer books for our services along with a wooden bookshelf upon which they rest. We drink wine and light candles with our new beautiful Kiddush cup and candlesticks.

The university, the alumni, and the donors have lifted us to new heights. We are all deeply grateful.

Since time immemorial, the Jewish people have kept Shabbat. Our relationship with the Sabbath arises from the very beginning of the Torah. In the first six days of creation, God ordered the space of the universe. He separated light from dark, night from day, and land from the waters. He distinguished inanimate objects from living souls. On the Sixth and final day of creation, God made humans to rule and guard the world. It is common to understand the seventh day as a holy day of rest; a day when we cease all burdensome activity and recover from the stresses of the week.

While this is one aspect of Shabbat, it does not quite explain why we sing, pray, and refrain from work on Shabbat rather than sleep in, eat whatever we want, and watch Netflix all Saturday. For God, the seventh day was not about recovering from the exhaustion of creation. The Torah says, “God completed, on the seventh day, His work which He has done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He ceased from all His work which God created to do.” If God completed his creation on the seventh day, then the world was incomplete on the sixth. God indeed rested from the creation of the physical world, but as the capstone to his project of creation, He made for us Shabbat, a day holy unto itself. This day was created in the story of Genesis as much as day, land, and the animals.

We are obligated to protect and sanctify the creations of God’s first six days. Holiness comes from the partnership of our spirits and the material world. Without us, the world remains incomplete, unconsecrated. Shabbat is holy all by itself. Shabbat is Judaism’s weekly gift, providing us refuge from the material world. Shabbat is less about physical relaxation and more about spiritual rest and fulfillment.

Music is one of the principle ways to sanctify moments and achieve this fulfillment. It is Shabbat’s natural companion. It has been a great joy for me to bring music to the Jewish community at Georgetown. We sing the same Hebrew words and melodies our ancestors sang for millennia. Our voices rise together not as those of individuals, but as a single communal declaration. We unite with others in the room, with thousands across the world, and with the millions who have come before us. As we sing and dance, we tap into the holiness of Shabbat. For those who have never been to our service, music is an open door to our community. In singing with our community and learning the songs, newcomers can join with us in celebration and prayer. And, for those who come every week, knowledge of the melodies and words shared amongst us strengthens the feeling of solidarity and community.

I have known music’s power since I was young boy. I remember once winter break in particular. My family and I were living on a sailboat in the Caribbean. One night, I awoke to the rocking of the boat at 5 a.m. I left my small sleeping quarters and crept up to the deck. My mother sat there with her guitar, strumming patterns familiar to me from my childhood. Whatever the occasion or adventure, my mom brought her guitar. Without much of a conversation, I remember sitting with her, looking at the stars, and singing ‘Jamaica Farewell” and “Island in the Sun.” They were her favorite Harry Belafonte songs from her own youth. It wasn’t until later that I picked up the guitar and learned to play those songs myself, but my love of music and my understanding of its profundity has been instilled in me from the time I could walk. Music binds people together. And as a smell that pulls you into your past, a song may stir long forgotten memories. It is my dearest hope that in the years to come, the music I have brought to Georgetown lives as a fond memory in the minds of all those who have come to Shabbat. I hope it motivates people to explore the other gems of Judaism; the other ways Judaism teaches us to sanctify our lives.

Shabbat and music both protest against the dominance of things in our lives. They teach gratitude and humanity. Our capacity for understanding the intimate secrets of nature evolves with every scientific and industrial advancement, and our control over this world seems endless. Yet as the need for conquering space exerts more force in our consciousness, it becomes easier to forget that the essence of our existence lies not in the dominance of physical items, but in individuality, autonomy, and spirit. Every week, we gather together and sanctify time itself by withdrawing from our ceaseless tasks. Each Shabbat, we are restricted from creating or fixing things. It is a time for us to sing together; to honor humanity; to embrace our connection with God and eternity.

This past semester, we shared the joy of music and Shabbat with the Georgetown Muslim community. In the few hours of overlap between the Jews’ and Muslims’ retreats in Virginia, we put our arms over one another and sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Three days before the presidential election, with fear in both of our communities, we were reminded that the sanctity of these moments comes not from passive hope, but from action inspired by an unrelenting belief in the holiness of this world.

Written by Jason Gusdorf, C’16