The Human Spirit: Short Friday
This story could never have happened on a short Friday. Observant Jews know that
you can't squeeze much into a short Friday.
The shortest Friday of the
year comes upon us this week: the earliest time to light Shabbat candles and
halt weekday toil. It starts at 3:59 p.m. in Jerusalem, at 4:11 in New York
where my friend Bronya Shaffer lives.
This story could never have
happened on a short Friday. Observant Jews know that you can't squeeze much into
a short Friday.
But on those last autumn Fridays, before our clocks are
adjusted backwards for winter rhythms, it's easier to lose track of the
approaching sunset, to agree to one additional appointment with someone who
needs advice, and to begin the final preparations for Shabbat a little late. And
then, the last hour before Shabbat is conducted in fast forward.
friend Bronya is a person of intelligence, gentility and piety. From the moment
she lands in Israel, she is a sought out personal consultant and speaker about
the toughest spiritual challenges.
On the first Friday night after she
arrived in Jerusalem, she had promised to speak at a dinner for a group of lone
soldiers at a communal dinner.
In that last rushed hour before Shabbat,
Bronya realized she hadn't received the exact address of the venue for her
evening talk. The contact person wasn't answering his phone. We discussed the
possibility of her lighting Shabbat candles early with the stipulation that she
wasn't accepting Shabbat, so she would have time to find the place. This is a
loophole that neither of us is fond of, but seemed like the safest choice.
I set up Shabbat candles for her. But before we expected it, the taxi we had
The driver was trumpeting his horn below on the street,
like the announcement of approaching Shabbat once sounded from the Temple
In one of those precious Jerusalem moments, the bareheaded
driver berated us – two women with covered hair – about not coming down the
stairs with alacrity. Didn't we know that he had to get home before Shabbat?
Despite his irritation, he promised to help my friend and deliver her to her
I concluded the financial negotiation and paid
him. Only on the way back up the stairs did I realize that Bronya had left
without lighting her candles. Of course, she hadn't taken her phone because it
would soon be Shabbat.
I knew that she'd want me to light the candles for
her, and so I did, when I lit my own, trying to send her a psychic message that
they were taken care of.
In the meantime, in the cab, Bronya had realized
her error and felt angry at herself. The driver let her off near the Ma'ayanot
Synagogue in Sha'arei Hessed. She remembered the evening organizer mentioning
that the soldiers' dinner would be nearby. She went inside the synagogue. There
were candles but no matches.
But as fortune would have it, Rabbi Shlomo
Gestetner, whom she'd known for decades, walked in. He didn't have matches
"Just go to my home," he advised her, where his wife, Rivka
Marga, was getting ready for Shabbat. (Thinking back on this, Bronya would later
realize that lighting in the synagogue would have been a halachic misstep.)
Rabbi Gestetner gave her directions in the old Jerusalem neighborhood of small
Bronya set out, but with all the right turns and left turns, she
was soon lost. The sun was sinking lower in the sky.
A grandmother many
times over, Bronya had never missed candelighting since she began lighting as a
child. The home in Crown Heights that she established with her late husband,
Gedalya, is bright with many glowing candles on Friday night. She lights candles
for her own 10 children and others, together with visiting family and friends,
and strangers she welcomes in her home. Dozens of candles float in a glass
tureen welcoming Shabbat.
Just when she thought she'd never find the
Gestetner home, Bronya thought she heard someone calling, "Mrs. Shaffer, Mrs.
A young woman approached her. "Don't you remember me?" asked
the young woman.
"I'm Elaine. I came to your home several years ago to
make a documentary about women's rituals around the world. I came to Crown
Heights to see Jewish women's rituals – particularly candle lighting."
Bronya did remember, and appreciated the irony. Still, she explained her
"Why don't you come with me to the friend's apartment I'm
staying in?" Elaine suggested. "There are candles all over the place."
they hurried to the stranger's apartment, Elaine said she was so glad to have
met Bronya again. "I always felt bad that when I was at your home in Crown
Heights, you invited me to light candles, too, and I didn't. You know I'm not
religious and don't go in for that kind of thing, rituals and all, but it wasn't
nice the way I said it.
"You were so emotional when you lit your candles.
Your son had just joined the Israeli army and you felt so connected with mothers
of soldiers praying for their sons and daughters."
Indeed, the borrowed
apartment had a cache of candles. Bronya heaved a sigh of relief and began
setting them up. This time Elaine didn't have a movie camera, but she wanted to
take Bronya's picture with a stills camera."I'm not religious myself," Elaine
repeated. "I don't do these things."
Bronya turned to her. "I'm so
grateful for your help in something so important to me.
Could you please
bring me another candle? I'm going to light one for you."
was preparing the extra candle, Elaine mentioned she'd gotten married.
"I'd have to light two candles now," smiled the filmmaker. "I was single when I
met you, but I actually got married not long ago."
"To a Jewish man?"
"Yes," Elaine answered. "I actually married a nice Jewish
In that case, Bronya pointed out, in the way only she can –
encouraging, but never coercive – it would be a shame not to light candles.
There was such a long and beautiful tradition of Jewish women bringing light
into their homes.
The final time for candlelighting was now minutes away.
Take-off. "I have an idea," said Bronya. "Instead of you taking my picture, I'll
take your picture and then I'll light my candles."
Elaine shrugged and
With Bronya's guidance, she lit Shabbat candles for the first
time. As she said the last words of the blessing, "on the holy Shabbat," tears
were streaming down her face.
"I've never done anything like this
before," Elaine said.
Bronya hugged her and lit her own candles, sending
up prayers for her loved ones and inhaling Shabbat peace.
evening, while Bronya was speaking after dinner for the lone soldiers, who had
invited her because of her own son's IDF service, she told them how she took
full responsibility for her mistakes. She should have been ready on time,
She should have lit the candles no matter how
many times the taxi honked. Then she paused and looked at the young persons in
"But have you ever noticed, that the Aibishter," she said,
using the Yiddish word for the "One on high," "has a way of guiding you just
where you need to be?"