Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, has released a new book that illuminates the meaning of Shabbat by telling it as a story in a way that has never been done before. Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself: Building Character, Shaping Perspectives, and Finding Happiness Through Shabbat incorporates the wisdom and interpretations of Jewish sages and rabbis throughout history in a uniquely modern and relatable manner. Meaningful details from the Talmud and other Jewish texts are cited in the book, such as how we cover the two challahs to remind us of the dew that protected the manna that fell from the skies when the children of Israel were in the desert.
Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself may be the first text to look at Shabbat from the perspective of Adam and Eve. To them, the first Shabbat must have seemed like it occurred at the beginning of the week, since G-d created them on Friday, a few hours before Shabbat. According to the Talmud, they had no awareness of the fact that He had made heaven and earth earlier in the week and that they came to life right before the seventh day, a day of rest.
In a Zoom call from South Africa, Rabbi Goldstein told The Jewish Press that writing Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself propelled him to embark upon his own “journey of discovery about Shabbat.” He explained, “It may sound strange coming from a rabbi to say that – I learned all the laws of Shabbat, I’ve taught the laws of Shabbat – but it’s another thing to actually know what is the spirit, the vision, the values of Shabbat in the deeper sense, and also how that how those values are intertwined with the laws.” He researched 3,500 years of commentary by Jewish scholars. “This book has been an eye-opening experience for me to write,” he shared.
Rabbi Goldstein, 52, became the youngest person to be appointed as Chief Rabbi of South Africa in January 2005. He was raised in an Orthodox family in a smaller community in Pretoria, South Africa, where he has fond memories of being a part of Shabbat services as a child. He described his family’s shul as being “very much centered around youth participation and running the services and reading from the Torah… Shabbat was also about youth leadership and taking responsibility and really getting involved and not kind of being pushed to the sidelines because we were young.”
He wrote Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself with the intention of speaking to people who grew up like he did, in observant homes, and also to those from non-religious backgrounds. “This book talks to two audiences,” he explained. “The main text almost doesn’t refer to rabbis and commentators and sages by name, so that a person who’s coming in with zero background can read it and appreciate the text for what it is, but then all the sources upon which it’s based – there are more than 200 books in the bibliography – the person with background can actually go in and have a look. Even a person who’s been keeping Shabbat their whole life, this will open the way for them to see Shabbat in a completely different way.”
The book’s wide range of endorsements come from two different worlds and reflect the diversity of the intended audience. From the rabbinic world, there is Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and the Chief Rabbis of Israel, and from the general Jewish society, President Isaac Herzog, Natan Sharansky, and actress Mayim Bialik.
Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself describes Shabbat as “our spiritual home” and “our ark in a sea of chaos.” Rabbi Goldstein compares observing Shabbat to being inside Noah’s Ark because it is our shelter from the outside storm. He writes, “Noah’s Ark was not only a place of physical safety – it was a haven of Divine values and spiritual sustenance in a world disconnected from ethics and kindness… The Ark he built was to be not only a physical refuge from the floodwaters, but a spiritual refuge from the corruption of the world… It was, most of all, a haven of kindness. Noah and his family spent all their time on the Ark caring for the animals within.”
Shabbat was always in existence, but it didn’t become known to us until G-d revealed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmud, that monumental day occurred on Shabbat. Rabbi Goldstein writes, “We were born as a nation on Shabbat… Shabbat reminds us that our origins and identity as a nation are like no other.” Throughout history, nations are built out of shared industries, lands, and because of similar cultures and beliefs, but “[w]e are the only nation who was not formed by any of these factors – we were formed directly by G-d, charged with His values and mission.”
Rabbi Goldstein emphasizes how disregarding Shabbat leads to assimilation and threatens our very existence. “History has demonstrated that when Jews abandon Shabbat, their descendants eventually disappear as Jews,” he writes. The very observance of Shabbat is a testament of our faith and belief in the existence of G-d. By observing Shabbat, we become witnesses to G-d. “Just as a witness is called to testify in court, the Midrash says we have a sacred duty to testify to the foundational truths of the world in the court of public opinion – and especially to ourselves, our families and our communities. We fulfill this duty when we keep Shabbat. By doing so, we bear witness to the two foundational facts of our existence: that G-d created the universe and that He liberated us from Egyptian slavery.”
The book explores the many qualities of Shabbat. It is a time for forgiveness, repentance, and building character traits like being humble, kind, optimistic, and grateful. It is also time of reflection and return. It’s a return not only to our heritage, but to our true inner selves. When we reset our desires to be in alignment with the will of G-d, it enables us to find peace, happiness, and purpose. Shabbat gives us a glimpse of the peace in the World to Come.
During Shabbat, we feel a spiritual connectedness to Jewish people all around the world. There is a comfort in knowing that we are all lighting the candles at the same time, saying the same blessings and prayers, reading the same parsha, and seeing the flicker of candlelight through our hands during havdala that signifies the distinction between light and dark, holy and everyday.
Rabbi Goldstein’s inspiration for Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself was the Shabbat Project, a grassroots movement that he and his wife, Gina, started in South Africa in 2013. Once a year, a few weeks after Sukkot, Jewish people from all over the world shut off their phones and disconnect from the world to unite by experiencing the peace and power of Shabbat. All proceeds from this new book, which has already been translated into Hebrew, Spanish, and French, will go towards funding the Shabbat Project.
This year, November 3-4 marks the tenth anniversary of the Shabbat Project, which coincides with the release of the book and the over 200 book clubs that have sprung up in the U.S. alone, which Shabbat Project volunteers have helped to initiate. Robin Meyerson, founder and director of Project Inspire Arizona, is honored to serve the North American Shabbat Partners. Meyerson recently went on a trip to Israel called Momentum through her organization, where 25 observant Jewish mothers were matched up with 25 mothers who were just learning about Shabbat. Each pair was gifted Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself to learn from together. (Those who are interested in leading learning groups can contact Meyerson at [email protected] for complimentary copies of the book.)
Each week, Rabbi Goldstein posts a new two-to-three minute video in his YouTube series, Create Yourself, which corresponds with chapters from the book. The videos reflect the engaging and accessible style of the concise chapters. In just a few minutes, he gives the audience a deeper insight into their reading, which videos such as “The Power of Humility and How Shabbat Connects Us to Our True Worth” and “Finding Peace in Trusting G-d: A Powerful Lesson from Shabbat.”
Rabbi Goldstein just returned from a five-day trip to Israel, where he presented Hebrew and English editions of his book to President Isaac Herzog at his official residence in Jerusalem. President Herzog was a supporter of the Shabbat Project when he served as chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel from 2018-21. His endorsement of Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself reflects his reverence for Shabbat. He states that the book “beautifully accents the spiritual dimensions of this holy day of rest. It reminds us of the real ways in which Shabbat can elevate our lives and our souls, and shows us why Shabbat is the national treasure of our people.”
Rabbi Goldstein also held meetings with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana and around 15 members of the Knesset representing the Labor Party, Yesh Atid, and Shas, to gift them with his book and speak with them about how Shabbat “should not be damaged by political differences. It needs to be the transcendent value above all of those differences.” He says his message was “very warmly received across the political divide.” He met with Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau and with Kesher Yehudi, a social movement that aims to unify Jewish people. Kesher Yehudi partnered with IDF soldiers to meet with yeshiva students to learn from Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself together.
Looking ahead, Rabbi Goldstein plans to visit as many book clubs as he can in the U.S. In May, he did a livestream Zoom session with a school in Arizona, where fifth graders and their parents and grandparents had the opportunity to ask him questions about the chapters they had read. Fifth grader Jacob Ryan asked him what his favorite part of Shabbat was, to which the Chief Rabbi responded, “Even more than Shabbat is that Friday afternoon, waiting for Shabbat… There’s so much anticipation because it’s such a beautiful day… Sometimes, if I’m having a hard week, I think, ‘It’s OK, it doesn’t matter if there’s so much work, Shabbat is just two days away.’”
For more information about Chief Rabbi Goldstein and Shabbat: A Day to Create Yourself, please visit www.chiefrabbi.co.za.