A moment in time: my New Zealand Shabbat

It wasn’t easy to get there but the effort was well worth it. A bus trip winding our way out of Queenstown took us to our first destination where we boarded a catamaran and crossed Lake Manapouri, its surface shimmering in the late morning sun. A second bus ride and seven rainbows later, we traversed Wilmot Pass where we saw our first view of Doubtful Sound glistening far below the cliffs. The winds were picking up and clouds filled the sky with uncertainty as we boarded the Fiordland Navigator, our home for the next two days. I had heard stories about the many “moods” of the sound and checked to make sure my seasick pills were within easy reach.

Our cruise began in open waters as we sailed past towering peaks adorned by glacier-fed waterfalls. On deck I hugged my jacket close as we navigated into the hidden waterways of the sound, narrow passages between rainforest-clad islands that look like fingers on the map. In this remote wilderness area, we watched fur seals lounge on the rocks and swim in the water as their pups valiantly tried to dive and twist like the adults.

Before dinner, the skies opened up and a warm rain pelted down on those of us who were brave enough to kayak off the boat. I soon learned that four kilometers doesn’t sound like a big distance when you are warm and dry. But the joy of watching my husband, Ray, paddle into hidden coves like Captain Cook kept me afloat and happy until we returned to the boat for a hot shower and a glass of New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc. I said a blessing, not just over the wine because it was Friday night and the beginning of Shabbat, but for being so fortunate to be in this wondrous place at this time in my life.

The next morning we awoke to a totally different waterway. It had rained all night and the boat was engulfed in a sultry mist. You could barely see the canyon walls through the ribbons of clouds that enveloped us and the constant sound of rushing water affirmed what our captain had told us at breakfast: that hundreds of waterfalls had emerged as a result of the rains.

Shabbat morning, 9 a.m. and not a minyan in sight. But what we had that morning, although not a synagogue experience, was an opportunity to experience Shabbat in a way I will never forget.

The captain came on the intercom and asked for our attention. “For the next five minutes, I would like to ask you a favor: Be totally still and silent. Stay where you are, don’t walk around or open doors or take photos or drink coffee. Just stand quietly and listen. I will turn off the boat’s engines and generators and we will drift at sea in silence. Thank you.”

And with that, we were given a three-bell warning so that each of us could find a place on board in which to take in the majesty of our surroundings. Twenty-four guests, one captain and a crew of six all stopped and listened. There, hundreds of miles from any town or settlement in the most remote wilderness I have ever been to, we listened to the sounds of the world. The gentle tapping of rain as it hit the deck, water lapping against the bow of the boat, birds calling out in song, and water — flowing, gushing, pouring down over boulders and bush — presented to us as a gift. It was a timeless moment and we were both witness to and part of it.

Being totally present and fully appreciating creation and the Creator is what the Jewish Sabbath is all about. Shabbat is a day of rest, a day when we are commanded not to interfere with or try to control the physical world in which we live. We are given an opportunity to be free from the tyranny of the daily demands of work and life that often obscure our ability to really see, hear and appreciate the beauty around us. In this way, Sabbath rest is really a state of peace within us as well as peace between us and the natural world.

I didn’t meet many Jews in New Zealand nor did I expect to. But I celebrated a moment in time that was the perfect Sabbath. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote so beautifully in his book “The Sabbath,” “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

As we sailed back to port, the sun broke through the mist and the sky turned from grey to deep blue, marshmallow clouds generously topping the mountain peaks. I smiled to think that on a Kiwi cruise in the middle of nowhere, I had been given such a wonderful opportunity to truly experience Shabbat.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at