Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

This is a story about a love and marriage, a life and death, enhanced and embraced by spirituality. Here the daily laws, rituals, and customs of Judaism provide two simple and ordinary people the opportunity to rise above the mundane trappings of the physical world and to sanctify their humble lives.

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A portrait of simple but beautiful piety, “Short Friday” examines the role of faith and religion in one’s life. All aspects of life are included: Shmul-Leibele and Shoshe apply their beliefs to their work, their marriage, their sexual relationship, and ultimately their death.

A slow and sloppy tailor, Shmul-Leibele uses only the strongest thread, the finest materials, and returns scraps to his clients. Shoshe not only keeps a proper home but also acquires additional money from outside sources. Having married each other for their serious and pious natures, the couple achieves a love so great that not even their inability to bear children (one of God’s commandments) threatens their future together.

Shmul-Leibele remembers the Law even during moments of great passion for Shoshe. Aware that the sexual act is intended for procreation, he nevertheless permits himself to experience pleasure from caressing and exploring Shoshe’s physical beauty. “The great saints also loved their wives,” he maintains, planning to attend the ritual bath the following morning in recognition of any transgression. For Shoshe, Shmul-Leibele’s praise of her worth each Sabbath is truly God’s blessing: “Here am I, a simple woman, an orphan, and yet God has chosen to bless me with a devoted husband who praises me in the holy tongue.”

As the couple allow no aspect of life to pass without an attempt to render it holy, so do they embrace their sudden death. Despite Shoshe’s initial alarm and confusion (“We went to sleep hale and hearty. . . . We were still young people. . . . We arranged a proper Sabbath.”), and encouraged by Shmul-Leibele’s acceptance of their fate (“Yes, Shoshe, praised be the true Judge! We are in God’s hands.”), the couple recall their final act of devotion as they prepare to give accounts of themselves to the angel of God.

The contrasts and parallels between the physical and spiritual worlds dominate the story. An examination of the story’s title itself suggests one such link: In the physical realm, it is on the shortest Friday of the year, when daylight fades rapidly, that the couple’s life also ends. Concurrently, it is on their holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, which begins on Friday evening and ends the following night, that Shmul-Leibele and Shoshe are called on to make a new beginning together.

This Friday is particularly dark, cold, and foreboding, whereas the Sabbath glow permeates the auras of Shmul-Leibele and his wife. In their home, the physical warmth from Shoshe’s oven and the spiritual warmth of the Sabbath combine to bring a sense of beauty, calm, and peace to an otherwise harsh existence. Ironically, it is Shmul-Leibele’s love of warmth that causes both his neglect of Shoshe’s warning that there is food still in the oven and, finally, his death.

A story that seeks to define even its readers’ faith, the appeal of “Short Friday” is the comprehension of universal themes linked by a common spiritual thread. One is encouraged to study and understand how to achieve meaning in life; how to approach death; how to prioritize opportunity and experience; how to create and recognize the spiritual dimensions of the physical world; how to consider religious teachings for a morally uplifting life.

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