A few years’ back, my husband heard a class about the importance of Melava Malka, aka the ‘fourth meal’ that escorts the Shabbat Queen out of the mundane world, on Saturday night. The Rav that gave it was a humble, realistic sort, and he explained how in his family, they would celebrate Melave Malka with a bar of chocolate, with each person eating a square ‘lichvod Melave Malka’ (in the honour of Melava Malka).
That sounded like such a cool, simple-to-do idea that from that week on, me and my husband also started to keep Melave Malka, albeit in a very, very simple way.
One time, I was talking to someone about my simple Melave Malka, and trying to encourage them to do something similar (because they weren’t doing anything to mark Melave Malka), when they told me flat out that ‘if you don’t wash for bread, it doesn’t count for anything’. I was stung.
I knew that the Rav who’d taught my husband was a very learned halachic authority, as well as a bunch of other good qualities. I couldn’t believe he’d have either deliberately mislead his students, or got the halacha so obviously wrong. I had my husband look it up, and there it was in black and white: While washing for bread was clearly preferable, it was also acceptable to do Melave Malka even on something as simple as a piece of fruit.
This isn’t the first time I came up against what I’ll call the ‘hyper-machmir’ all-or-nothing mindset that actually destroys the joy of the mitzvoth, and is rooted in a very subtle, but incredibly pernicious form of arrogance and superiority.
Rebbe Nachman himself was always dead-set against humrot, or stringencies. He counselled his followers to strive to keep the basic laws to the best of their ability (all the time recognizing that even that was an incredible feat) – but to restrict their humrot as much as possible. Rebbe Nachman advised that if you wanted, you could pick one mitzvah, and choose to try to keep that with all its additional practices and adornments. But everything else should be done with complete simplicity, and without any extra-strict practices.
Rebbe Nachman said these things 200 years’ ago, when the general level of communal kedusha and mitzvah observance was so much higher than it is today. It’s not for nothing that he also remarked that at the end of days, a man who washed al netilat yedayim (ritual hand washing) would be as unique in his generation as the Baal Shem Tov was in his.
Spirituality has never been easy, but at this stage in history, when God so often appears to be buried under piles of materialism, minutiae, and arrogant ideas about impressing other people with the external form of the mitzvahs we do, it sometimes feels impossible to tap in to the underlying meaning of all these things.
God wants the heart.
Sure, if I could wash for bread every motzae Shabbat, and spend the next two hours singing melava malka songs with my family, He’d like that (as long as that’s something I was doing sincerely, and not just to prove how ‘frum’ I was.) As it is, God knows that sometimes, even getting the food cooked for Shabbat is like climbing Mount Everest for me.
But I’m still yearning to also do Melave Malka, in some quiet way. So I hope that when I have my cup of tea and cookie, or smoothie, lichvod Melave Malka, He appreciates that at this stage of the game, and in this place that I currently find myself in, that my bread-less Melave Malka is not only acceptable, it’s even geshmak.