Shabbat Rest: A Catalyst for Peace

By Nilaya Knafo ’22 M.A.R.

In my faith experience as a Jew, the celebration of Shabbat or Sabbath is a weekly renewal of my commitment to understanding how humanity can meaningfully partner with God in acts of creation, connection, and healing. In a world burdened with conflict, violence, and injustice, Shabbat is a personal necessity, reminding me of humanity’s powerful capacity to create peace and intentional relationships with God and with our neighbors.

When sundown on Friday approaches, I take a breath and welcome Shabbat into my heart as a new beginning. In a world burdened with conflict, violence, and injustice, Shabbat is a personal necessity.

Each week, from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday, I refrain from labor and instead focus on slowing down, engaging in prayer, and spending time with family and community. I honor this day as the Jewish commemoration of God’s act of creating the world and sanctifying the seventh day. When sundown on Friday approaches, I take a breath and welcome Shabbat into my heart as a source of new beginnings and inner peace.

Gratitude and Relief

Each Friday I greet the start of Shabbat by lighting three candles, two that represent God’s commandment to remember and observe the Sabbath and a third for the love of my daughter. When I draw the warmth of the candles’ light towards my face and bring my hands to cover my eyes, I recite a special blessing. During these moments of prayer and reflection, I often experience a wave of relief and gratitude for the opportunity to pause and remember why I believe. 

A decisive moment in my understanding of Shabbat came a few years ago, when I welcomed Shabbat at the historic Tempel Synagogue in Krakow, Poland, accompanied by a Polish Holocaust survivor. The synagogue, once home to a vibrant Jewish congregation, was desecrated during World War II and used as a stable by the Nazis. When I lit Shabbat candles and recited prayers with the survivor and an international gathering of youth like myself, I felt a deep bond with those around me as well as with the Jews who once worshipped and observed Shabbat in this very space. Perhaps for the first time I really asked myself, How can humanity mirror God in creating and extending light in the world, despite the darkness around us? 

Shabbat has since become my personal answer to the search for hope, guidance, and clarity on how to extend God’s light. Today, in my prayers for healing and prosperity for those I know and don’t know, I am reminded of how my role as a mother, wife, friend, and neighbor can help me achieve this mission. 

A Mountaintop Moment

Beyond the sense of renewal and relationship with God that Shabbat offers, an important part of observance is a festive meal. Most weeks before Shabbat begins, I bake challah bread that symbolizes the nourishment that God provided to the Israelites when they roamed the desert after leaving Egypt. Blessing and sharing challah with my family and guests is an intimate experience that represents our potential as human beings to build and sustain relationships with our neighbors. I have welcomed many people from different backgrounds around my Shabbat table, and breaking bread together frequently encourages me to reflect on my role as a creator in cultivating hospitality and establishing a nurturing environment in my daily life.

This Shabbat feeling of human unity deepened for me in 2017, when I traveled to Amman, Jordan, to study Arabic on a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. For the first time I personally experienced living as a Jew alongside Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. One day, I visited Mount Nebo, a site of biblical significance in Jordan where Jews and Christians believe Moses looked out to the promised land before his death. As I stood on the mountain’s ridge and gazed towards the vast desert ahead of me, I was overwhelmed with awe at God’s unlimited potential to unite humanity in the natural world that God has made. When I turned around to rest in the shade, I saw a woman my age sitting on a bench and praying inside the 4th-century basilica atop the mountain. I felt a bond with this woman who came from a different background from my own, because in this moment we both were aware of our spiritual ties to this special place through our faith. Learning Arabic has been an important way to enhance my efforts at interreligious dialogue, sharpening my curiosity about how to use my own faith to connect with God and others.

Re-entering the World

Today, my career is dedicated to the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation, and Shabbat has been crucial in keeping me focused on how to continue forming solidarity among human beings around the world. My work has included designing conflict management trainings for United Nations peacekeepers and international youth leaders and leading an interfaith community-building program for local congregations in my city. Always it requires special care to encourage inclusive and welcoming spaces that make dialogue and learning possible. In many ways, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is a constant gift to me—each week it offers me a new chance to take initiative in reviving relationships and uniting people together across difference. 

Jews welcome Shabbat with light, and we also bid farewell to Shabbat with light. I conclude Shabbat with a closing ritual called Havdalah, which means “separation” in Hebrew and symbolizes Shabbat’s parting gift of light and spirituality for the coming week. During Havdalah I often find myself wishing for more time to observe Shabbat because of the tranquility and closeness to faith and community that it offers. For this reason, it’s frequently a personal challenge to reunite with the turbulent world after my 25-hour Sabbath pause.

“One Essence and Soul”

Reentering my habitual routine summons me to apply the restoration and enlightenment I attained during Shabbat to my daily life. In Judaism the concept Tikkun Olam encourages us all to take the world into our hands and do something to repair and improve it. Leaving Shabbat behind with a stronger bond to my identity, faith, and neighbors, I am faced with the responsibility and agency to move forward and be a better peacebuilding practitioner. My weekly Shabbat observance obliges me to rest in order to open my heart and see the humanity in those around me. 

One of my favorite lines from the poem “Bani Adam” (Sons of Adam or Human Beings), by the 13th century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi reads, “Human beings are members of a whole, In creation of one essence and soul.” Each week when I am reminded of God’s gift of rest after having created human beings and the world as a home for all, I experience an enhanced dedication to do my part to spread light, unity, and peace on earth.

Nilaya Knafo ’22 M.A.R. is an independent consultant and a program officer for Sharing Sacred Spaces, which is dedicated to bringing religious congregations together to build strong communities that work for peace and social change. A graduate of American University, she has also worked as a senior program assistant at the United States Institute of Peace.