Campbeltown: Address at Gaelic Service 2019

“Tha sia latha ann anns am bu chòir obair a bhith air a dèanamh, ach chan ann air latha na Sàbaid.”

“There are six days for work to be done, but not on the Sabbath day.

Couch Surfing is an internet site which enables people using it to identify homes which are prepared to offer free hospitality to them. Our son Christopher used it a lot when on his foreign travels. Florence and I felt moved to reciprocate by offering similar hospitality to travellers. Although we are no longer involved in the scheme, since April 2013 we have welcomed 20 people from many different countries into our house. These countries have included – France, the USA, Israel, Hungary, Germany, Scotland, Brazil, Tasmania, Western Australia, Slovakia, Mexico, Argentina and Hong Kong. Fascinating stories have emerged – Judit from Hungary who was desperate to vote YES in the Scottish Independence Referendum, Steve from the USA who had cycled all the way from Thailand across Asia and Europe to get back home, Philippa from Aberdeen who was searching for the grave of her father in Kilkerran Cemetery, Campbeltown.

One of the earliest visitors was Matan, from Israel. He had come to Campbeltown in August 2013 to attend the whisky–making school run by Springbank Distillery in the town. In April 2017 we had an email from him to say that his business partner,Yechiel, from Israel would be attending the whisky-making school also and that he would be bringing us a present of a bottle of wine from his vineyard in Israel as a thank-you for the welcome he had received from us five years previously.

Yechiel turned out to be a practising Jew. He stayed with us during the Jewish Sabbath which lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. He was surprised to find that there was a Mezuzah at our front door. The Mezuzah contains the great commandment in the Law – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. Likewise I was able to produce a Kippah (the Jewish head covering). Both these articles I had purchased in The Jewish Museum in Vienna when on a European holiday. After our evening meal of traditional Scottish fish and chips, the Sabbath celebration began at sundown, 8.30pm, on the Friday evening. There were various prayers intoned, all in Hebrew from the Jewish Prayer Book. First was the welcome to the angels of peace, then a prayer for the women of valour (the women of the house). Yechiel was surprised that I could quote his text from Proverbs  – “Who can find  a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies” Then we had the blessing over the wine (Kiddush) before we drank it.

This was the Kosher wine which had come all the way from Matan’s vineyard in Israel. Then we moved to the kitchen for the ritual washing of hands with water being poured three times over, firstly, the right hand and then the left hand. Then we had the blessing of the bread. The bread was two loaves of carefully braided Challah bread which Yechiel had baked for us earlier in the evening. Finally there was a blessing after the meal. Then we drank a toast to Matan, who now lives in New York. We did this with whisky from his distillery in Israel.

We had to take a “selfie” picture for this, since Yechiel would not use any electrical appliances on the Sabbath. It was late before we finally retired to bed. The following day Yechiel had further prayers to say and he used most of the day to rest and read from the scriptures.  He declined my offer to drive him around the surrounding area as he would not travel on the Sabbath. In addition to the Tallit or prayer shawl which he wore to pray, he also showed us his two phylacteries – cubic black leather boxes with leather straps that Orthodox Jewish men wear on their head and their arm during weekday morning prayer. For Yechiel, Sabbath observance was clearly something of great importance.

Florence and I had experienced Sabbath observance many years earlier in Scotland on the Island of Lewis in Stornoway, this time in the Christian Church where the lady who owned the B & B we planned to stay in would not accept any bookings in her house involving a Sunday. As a result we had to rethink our schedule for the visit.

Both the Old and the New Testament readings today talked about the importance of the Sabbath as the day of rest, but there were qualifications about following it in too strict a way.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah commended the importance of Sabbath Observance but it had to done within the context of being concerned about the plight of the hungry and the needs of the oppressed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus was quick to point out that there was nothing wrong with him bringing healing to someone on the Sabbath Day. This was much to the fury of the leaders of the Jewish synagogue who delighted in sticking to all the petty rules which surrounded the Sabbath. Jesus argued that animals had to be tended to regardless of what day it was.

In our own time, Sabbath observance has declined markedly. Sunday trading is quite normal now. Those who work in the public services must be prepared to work on a Sunday. The armed forces, the police, the medical profession and so on all have to be on alert in the case of an emergency, so Sabbath observance is perhaps a luxury that not many can enjoy. Clearly it is important to set aside a time for quietness and reflection. In this church week by week we try to do that but just for five minutes. We took lessons in that from a local Quaker, Ken Eames, who has great experience in keeping extended periods of silent meditation.

In Wednesday’s Times newspaper this week there was an article about the importance of setting aside a time for being quiet and silent. Students from the colleges at Durham, Oxford and Cambridge Universities have spoken of the need for having a place of calm away from the hurly burly of student life and they have found that place in the chapels attached to their colleges

Undoubtedly there is a need to find balance and calm in our lives. Life has to go on. We recognise that, but taking time to be still and to reflect on what we do is also important for our general wellbeing. May we be able to embrace that. Use the time later in this service to be still and reflect. Silence can be very powerful.

David O McEwan