Poem of the Week

How to Observe Sabbath When the World Won't Stop

In a Seinfeld-ish poem, Nina Davis Salaman presciently asks: Is it essential for everything to close on Shabbat?

The Homestall, Nina Davis Salaman’s house in Barley, Hertfordshire. No Jewish community but 30 rooms. Photo postcard Robert H. Clark: ca. 1906
Photo postcard Robert H. Clark: ca. 1906

The Sabbath

Nina Davis Salaman

Not for us the Sabbath of the quiet streets,
Sabbath peaceful o’er the world outspread,
Felt where every man his neighbor greets,
Heard in hush of many a slowly passing tread,
Not the robe of silence for our holy day: --
Noisy flock of the worker and the player;
Toil and stir and laughter of the way
Surge around the steps that seek a place of prayer.
Silent we while through the thronging street and mart
Work-day clamor of the city rolls: --
Cloistered inly, from the world apart,
Ours ‘tis to bear the Sabbath in our souls.

In this Seinfeld-ish poem that doesn’t seem to be about much, Nina Davis Salaman (1877-1925) presciently tackles an issue that is much to the fore in today’s Israel: Is it essential that places of entertainment and trade be closed on the Sabbath?

The poem opens with a vision of a nonexistent idealized situation in which everyone observes a traditional Jewish Sabbath. Then it describes what the Sabbath is like when everyone else is going about their normal pursuits.

This is in friendly language: “the worker and the player toil and stir and laughter” – the everyday bustle is not distressing. The obsolete verb “to while” means to pass the time pleasantly and “inly,” means “inwardly.” The Sabbath is an inner, spiritual state of an individual or family – and not something imposed or supported by the environment outside.

Nina Davis Salaman, photographer unknown.

As the mother of six and the wife of a self-described “Englishman of the Jewish persuasion,” Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, a geneticist who did important work on potatoes, Nina Davis Salaman (1877-1925, herself Jewish) presided over a 30-room home in Barley, Hertfordshire, a small village with no Jewish community. There she engaged in local good works and made frequent use of the library in nearby Cambridge.

On major holidays the Salamans went up to London to stay with family and attend services at the New West End Synagogue.

The poet and her sister received a Hebrew education at home from her father, Arthur Davis, son of a well-off manufacturing family. A leading figure in the male-dominated field of Hebraic scholarship, she published fine translations of medieval Hebrew poetry as well as her own poetry and essays.

With her father, her sister, and the British Zionist Israel Zangwill she provided much of the translated material in what is known as the Davis/Adler Machzor, the bilingual holiday prayer book used for years in the English-speaking world. In 1919, she challenged gender restrictions in Judaism to become the first woman to deliver a sermon an Orthodox synagogue in Britain.

Being educated herself, she actively supported education for Jewish girls – both in England and at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem – as well as the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, which lobbied not only for votes for women in the British electoral system (which accorded universal suffrage only in 1928, after the United States gave women the right to vote in 1920), but also for a greater voice for them in synagogues and other Jewish institutions. She advocated Zionism and, as the poem suggests, she might not have minded shops in a Jewish and democratic state being open on the Sabbath.

*Musing: Are the spiritual rewards greater when everyone around you is supposedly in the same frame of mind – or when many people around you are openly engaged in other things?