Keeping the Sabbath

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The past few decades have seen remarkable change in the daily activity of an average citizen due to technological advances. The ways in which we communicate, perform our jobs and enjoy our leisure time are very different than when our parents were our age. The full effects of the creep of technology into so many aspects of our lives are just beginning to become evident but one thing is clear — we need breaks from constant contact with distant people in order to connect with the people around us. The Jewish solution to this contemporary problem is the ancient but prescient Shabbos.

The search for reasons underlying the Torah’s commandments is a time-honored Jewish activity that has yielded a large literature, and this recent ascription of a new reason for Shabbos is not just religiously acceptable but praiseworthy. In this respect, Judith Shulevitz’s recent book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time has a place within tradition. Indeed, the explanations for the commandments regarding Shabbos contained in R. Abraham Chill’s compilation, The Mitzvot: The Commandments and Their Rationale (pp. 36-42, 135-137), are greatly enhanced by Shulevitz’s study of other historical meanings and contemporary explanations. Yet, despite this traditional purpose, there is a sense in which this new book is the exact opposite of what an Orthodox Jew would write.

Shulevitz’s book contains three separate threads, isolated in different subchapters but continued throughout the book. One portion of the book is autobiographical, telling the author’s very personal religious history. Her story is compellingly narrated, enhanced by the author’s ample literary talent. The second part is a philosophical, psychological, sociological, economic and political study of the benefits of observing Shabbos, which go well beyond alleviating the burden of contemporary technology. Shulevitz’s insight and eloquence are in full evidence as she explores the many positive effects of Sabbath observance on both a personal and communal level.

The third portion is a series of historical studies of what the Sabbath has meant to different communities and thinkers — Jewish, Christian, ancient and modern. Much of this is textual work — usually with interpretations too radical for my Orthodox temperament — but there is much more. This is a rich study of the many historical Sabbaths, even if the nature of the scholarly exercise does not allow Shulevitz to use her full narrative talents.

These historical lessons are quite interesting. There is a lot we Orthodox Jews can learn from different people from a variety of cultures. The importance of the Sabbath and how it impacts people’s lives — even though it is observed differently by, for example, Puritans and Kabbalists — yields many lessons of value.

But the goal of all this hard work is very personal, and this is where Shulevitz departs from what an Orthodox writer would do. She spends all this time and talent studying what the Sabbath has meant to so many different people in order to understand what it can mean to her. This is all an investigation of how she should observe it and what she can find in it. Something about the Sabbath appeals to her and she went on a spiritual journey to find her personal Sabbath.

I can appreciate all of this and celebrate her turn to tradition to find meaning. Yet I cannot ignore that Shabbos is in the same list of ten commandments that forbids adultery and murder. We observe Shabbos not because of its many benefits but because God commanded us to. We do it because we must; everything else is secondary.

Yet, ironically, it is this devaluing of benefits that allows us to fully enjoy them. This sense of commandedness is what forces us to leave work early in the winter, to insist that teenage children stay home for Friday night dinner, to refrain from working no matter what the consequences. The absoluteness of Shabbos is what protects it from our temporary stresses that risk creeping into that sacred domain. Without that sense of commandedness, we can’t build walls that are impenetrable which generate the full psychological and sociological benefits of the Shabbos. And, I suspect, a parent who chooses Shabbos as a personal lifestyle is unlikely to pass that choice on to her children, who after all will be making their own lifestyle choices. A personal Shabbos is a half Shabbos, which is better than nothing but not the full experience and not something that can be successfuly passed on to the next generation.

It is, contrary to Shulevitz’s claim (pp. 194-197), possible to observe a traditional Shabbos in today’s world. I do it, as do many I know. We do it because we have no choice, we have been commanded to do it, and we are therefore able to enjoy its full benefits even in, or especially in, this hyper-connected world.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine, the Editorial Board of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. anony 04/01/2010 10:29 PM
    “we need breaks from constant contact with distant people in order to connect with the people around us.” this is a pathetic reductionist justification for shabbat observance. no no no. shabbat is not a strategy or tactic for connecting. it is a mitzvah with no such purpose for most people who choose to observe it. how sad that you seek to devalue it. reductionism is the destruction of religious practice.
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    anony 04/01/2010 10:30 PM
    and by the way, your new blog design is awful
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    JLan 04/01/2010 10:31 PM
    It might also be appropriate to link to the slate.com conversation on this (http://www.slate.com/id/2248533/entry/2248538/), which includes the author.
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    hirhurim 04/01/2010 11:55 PM
    guest12345678: Offering explanations is reductionist destruction? Were the Rambam and Chinuch also reductionist destroyers?
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    Shlomo 04/02/2010 05:41 AM
    Gil: When you try to explain a presumably derabanan law (not using modern communications technology because of electricity) based on a social benefit that rabbis in the past could not have known about, you’re on shaky ground.

    P.S. While guest12345678’s tone is over the top, I must note that I’ve had technical issues commenting here. Once I was unable to enter text at all, and the “Please open a Disqus account” that pops up every single time is really annoying. Perhaps the decreased volume and author-diversity of comments since the design change is numerical evidence (as opposed to anecdotal reports) that the old design was in fact better?
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    Jon_Brooklyn 04/02/2010 11:06 AM in reply to hirhurim
    I was hoping someone would bring this up – according to the Rav in Part IV of the Halakhic Mind, absolutely, they are reductive destroyers.
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    David Tzohar 04/02/2010 11:11 AM
    2 people liked this.
    “We do it because there is no choice” Is har Sinai still suspended above our heads?.The question of kfiyya vs. free will is a little heavy to deal with in this format butIMHO we certainly DO have a choice, if we didnt there would be no meaning to sachar veonesh. Most of us did not choose to be born Jews but many of us at some point made a conscious choice and commitment to shmirat mitzvot. It is a lofty aspiration to be an eved Hashem mitoch naaseh venishma but for those of us who have yet to reach that level taamei ha mitzvot are an important bridge between intellectual thought and practical observance
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    guest 04/02/2010 12:28 PM
    My question is:
    Will shabbat laws change when all the sephorim are written on the Kindle or Ipad?
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    STBO 04/02/2010 01:26 PM
    1 person liked this.
    I get the feeling that the new comments format is deterring commenters.
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    hirhurim 04/02/2010 01:28 PM in reply to STBO
    It’s Chol Hamoed. There’s never much traffic then.

    But I’m not quite sure why you think this is WORSE than JS-Kit. I just figured out how to enlarge the size and change the style of comments.
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    hirhurim 04/02/2010 01:35 PM
    Shlomo: There’s more to the benefits than refraining from electronics. See the penultimate paragraph for some examples. But I think there is probably an issue of Shabbason with many of the electronic contraptions, at least as they are often used.

    David Tzohar: Of course we have free will. I meant that we FEEL compelled to leave work before Shabbos, not that we are literally compelled.

    Jon_Brooklyn: I don’t pretend to understand Halakhic Mind. But maybe you are referring to the general idea discussed in this post: http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2008/02/anti-philo
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    Steve Brizel 04/02/2010 02:45 PM
    R Gil deserves much credit for exposing as folly a “personal” decision by the author to essentially experience and then reject Shabbos, as opposed to realizing that it is one of the major demarcations of Torah observant life as a person who was commanded to remember and keep Shabbos because of its unique nature. I think that Shabason, which may very well be of a Torah nature, according to the Rishonim cited by R Gil in his letter to the editor of the first volume of the Edah Journal, may very well be a factor precluding all sorts of electronics as a means of ensuring that our observance of Shabbos Kodesh remains a Shvisah Hanikeres/

    The review here (as well of that in the NY Times Book Review) convinced me that the book is wrong because it is “possible to observe a traditional Shabbosin today’s world” and that we should never be apologetic about this key element of observance, especially when challenged by a rejection of the same.
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    Steve Brizel 04/02/2010 02:58 PM
    Guest 12345678 wrote in part:

    “shabbat is not a strategy or tactic for connecting. it is a mitzvah with no such purpose for most people who choose to observe it. how sad that you seek to devalue it. reductionism is the destruction of religious practice.”

    Wrong-The Torah , in both Torah Shebicsav and TSBP, as well as the Nussach of Kiddush and the Tefilos provide us with specific reasons and purposes why we observe Shabbos. I would argue that the “Kafah Aleihem Khar ” is meaningless in view of the covenants that were entered into via the acceptance of the Luchos Shniyos and the reacceptance of the Torah and Mitzvos in the wake of Purim.
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    LI Reader 04/02/2010 03:20 PM in reply to hirhurim
    And thank you for making the comments font larger!
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    Jon_Brooklyn 04/02/2010 04:56 PM in reply to hirhurim
    Check pages 97-98, it’s much less technical/jargon-filled than the rest.
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    Jon_Brooklyn 04/02/2010 06:21 PM in reply to Steve Brizel
    Yeah, I really don’t understand how such a statement could have made it into such a book. What is impossible about observing a traditional Shabbat in today’s world? Puzzling more than anything else.
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    Lester 04/02/2010 07:19 PM in reply to Steve Brizel
    “Gil deserves much credit for exposing as folly a “personal” decision”

    I’m reading the book and finding it immensely refreshing. Much more so than the kvetching that will soon begin – by the “commanded” Jews – which sound like: “Oh God, how much longer do we have until Shabbat is over?”

    As the OTD phenomenon continues to grow – and it will – personal choice will be the soil in which healthy Jews will grow.
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    Shlomo 04/03/2010 06:41 PM in reply to Lester
    “As the OTD phenomenon continues to grow – and it will – personal choice will be the soil in which healthy Jews will grow.”

    In the same vein: My feeling is that already a large proportion of MO people stay “on the derech” because they think it is a good way of living one’s life, not because they feel any deep sense of obligation, revelation, or possible reward/punishment.
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    Steve Brizel 04/03/2010 10:49 PM
    If your Shabbos is basically a lot of sleep, showing up in shul fashionably late ( in the middle of Kabalas Shabbos or Psukei Dzimra) , eat your Seudos without Zmiros or a Dvar Torah of sorts,or go to a shiur or learn Torah in some manne, IMO, you are missing out on the special nature of Shabbos.
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    Anonym 04/04/2010 05:05 PM in reply to Shlomo
    Is your feeling that the proportion of MO people like this is greater than the proportion of UO? What has led you to this feeling? If anything, I would guess the opposite considering the barriers to exit the UO world seem greater than the barriers to exit the MO world.
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    Realist 04/07/2010 12:33 PM in reply to Steve Brizel
    If shabbos were a lot of sleep and family meals, dayennu.
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    Steve Brizel 04/07/2010 12:44 PM
    Anonymous-From what I have seen, lackluster understanding of what a proper observance of Shabbos means transcends hashkafic boundaries.

    Realist-“a lot of sleep” or cactching up with one’s sleep should not be confused with a view that Shabbos is a 25 hour dead zone.
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    teaparty 05/08/2010 01:29 PM
    I am just wondering what is the proper way to observe The holy Sabbath, I clearly understand that it is Saturday, not Sunday, Saturday is God’s Holy day and that when Jesus said He was Lord over the sabbath and that sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath I feel that He meant Sabbath was given to us “like the law” to teach us how to be happy healthy and kind to one another. I think He meant that His wisdom superceded the distortion of the law by common era pharisees etc. but what I don’t get is that we clearly have a change in the way God’s people observe the sabbath form moses when nobody was supposed to go outside of the tent or their camp and they were supposed to prepare ahead oftime in friday for sabbath on saturday, to the time of Jesus where we see people assembling at the synagogue to study… obviously that left room for the tradition to grow with the culture of the era, but where does that leave us today realisticly , what activities would fill up a day in observance of sabbath?I wnat an open minded answer that wil stand tested against all things becuase that is the truth, i dont want a close minded this is what ive been doing my whole life becuase its what i was taught but i have no other explanation for it anser, please and thank you
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    Steve Brizel 05/18/2010 04:41 PM
    I have read the book cover to cover and plan to reread it again. As R Gil points out, this is not a book written from a Halachic or Hashkafic POV that is Charedi or MO and which contains far too much comparative religion style analysis and sources well beyond our canon, but the writer struck me as a highly literate person searching for a way to give meaning to the few minutes of “free time” in her life in a technological and instantaneous demand-response based world.

    I think that her own misconception was that she perceived herself as a failure because of her inadvertent transgression of certain Issurei Shabbos. I think that such a POV ignores the fact that if we assume that Shabbos was one of the Mitzvos given at Marah before the Maamad Har Sinai according to one Girsa in Rashi, and as Ramban points out, for the purpose of familiarizing oneself with the mitzva prior to its formal commandment. This is the essence of Chinuch ( and of kiruv/Chiziuk), namely experiencing the Mitzvah and formally gaining insights into the halachic and hashkafic themes as one gains Torah knowledge.

    I think that this book deserves to be read in comparison and contrast with some of the wonderful sefarim and books that have been published on Shabbos recently.

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