“Since Shabbat happens every week, doesn’t that make it less special than if it only happened once a year?” That’s a question a student asked me right after Rosh Hashanah (one of the High Holidays, and by implication one the most important ones). Certainly, if we judge by frequency, once-a-year holidays do seem more special. They interrupt the daily flow of our lives, we rearrange things to participate in them, we celebrate with family we might not see all that often. These moments do seem special. But, special does not necessarily mean more important. Our tradition is clear that the most important Jewish holiday is Shabbat. One piece of evidence for this is the number of aliyahs to the Torah; the more aliyahs, the more important the holiday. There are four on festivals, five on Rosh Hashanah, six on Yom Kippur, and seven on Shabbat.
One reason Shabbat is so important is because of the many times it’s referenced and commanded in the Torah, much more than any of the other holidays. But I think there is a much more profound reason. Think of your childhood. Now think of a relative you liked but you rarely saw. The times you got to see that relative were very special. But the people that you saw every day, week in and week out – parents, siblings, etc. – they were much, much more important. It might not have seemed “special” seeing them each day (and sometimes quite the opposite!), but there is no doubt of their importance in your life.
I think the same is true for the Jewish people and Shabbat. It comes every week and it may seem so familiar, even mundane, that we take its presence for granted. It may not have the pizzazz of the once-a-year holidays. But it offers us a regular opportunity to stop, think, give thanks, and reset ourselves for the week to come. If we pay attention, its influence can be much greater than that of any other day in the calendar. It can be, each week, the most important day of the year.