by R. Gil Student
Is a community or even an individual allowed to sound a siren alerting people that it is almost Shabbos? On the one hand, the noise certainly will bother someone who is sick or sleeping or simply not interested in the notification. Disturbing them might be forbidden. On the other hand, many people benefit from the siren. If they are running late, the siren is a useful notice to hurry and finish preparing for Shabbos. Which concern takes priority?
I. Neighborly Concern
The Mishnah (Bava Basra 20b) says:
“If a resident wants to open a store in his courtyard, his neighbor can protest to prevent him from doing so and say to him: I am unable to sleep due to the sound of people entering the store and the sound of people exiting. But one may fashion utensils in his house and go out and sell them in the market, despite the fact that he is not allowed to set up a store in the courtyard, and the neighbor cannot protest against him doing so and say to him: I am unable to sleep due to the sound of the hammer you use to fashion utensils, nor can he say: I cannot sleep due to the sound of the mill that you use to grind, nor can he say: I cannot sleep due to the sound of the children. It is permitted for one to make reasonable use of his own home.” (Koren Steinsaltz translation)
Rava explains that a school (“the sound of children”) is different from a store in that there is a mitzvah to establish a formal institute for Torah education. Here, the Gemara elaborates on the history of formal Jewish education and the great enactment of Yehoshua Ben Gamla. Since Torah education of children is a mitzvah, a neighbor cannot object to it. The Gemara (21a) adds that neighbors can object to a gentile school, where secular subjects are taught, because that education is not a mitzvah. The Mordekhai (ad loc., no. 512) says that this applies equally to a Jewish school where secular subjects (in those days, a trade) are taught.
Rav Moshe Sofer (Chidushei Chasam Sofer, Bava Basra 20b s.v. ella) explains that fathers always had to teach their sons Torah. Despite that, neighbors could still protest a noisy school because the education was not their responsibility. Yehoshua Ben Gamla’s enactment placed the obligation of Torah education on all community members. Now that the obligation is also on the neighbors, they cannot object to the school. (See Rav Tzvi Spitz, Minchas Tzvi, vol. 1 no. 1.)
Therefore, when thinking about a Shabbos siren, we need to ask 1) is it a mitzvah? and 2) is it placed on the entire community? Only if the answers to both questions are yes, then we can say that neighbors cannot object to the disruption.
II. Shabbos Siren
The Mishnah (Shabbos 34a) says that right before Shabbos, the head of a household should confirm the final preparations (take ma’aser and leave food for the eruv), and the instruct to light candles. In other words, he is responsible to make sure work ends in his home before candle lighting (Magen Avraham 260:2).
However, the Gemara (Shabbos 35b) says that Jews used to blow shofar six times throughout Friday afternoon, to remind people to stop working before Shabbos. Surprisingly, the Tur (Orach Chaim 256) and Shulchan Arukh (ad loc.) describe this ancient practice. These are texts of practical law, not history. The inclusion of this practice must mean that we should implement something similar today, if possible. Rema (ad loc.) adds that the common practice in sixteenth century Poland was to send a communal representative into the street a half hour before Shabbos to announce that people should prepare.
If the community reminds everyone to stop work before Shabbos, why does the leader of the household have to do it also? I have not seen any answer to this question but it seems simple to me. Everyone is obligated to his family members and also obligated to community members at large. You fulfill your family obligation verbally and your communal obligation through your communal organization. The siren fulfills your obligation to the community. Mishnah Berurah (256:2), which was written during a time when the traditional shtetl structure was collapsing and Shabbos observance was declining, takes this communal obligation very seriously and recommends appointing Shabbos committees to plead with store owners to close for Shabbos. Sadly, this and other strategies failed, and we now live in a time when the majority of Jews fail to observe Shabbos. But the obligation to remind and encourage each other remains.
It seems to me that the Shabbos sirens fulfill the obligation to help Jews stop work before Shabbos. I know that sometimes I am running late and I benefit from the siren in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It reminds me to hurry up. Since we are all obligated to remind each other to stop work before Shabbos, the siren is an obligation on each individual. Therefore, it falls into the same category as a yeshiva, to which neighbors lack the right to object. To the opposite, we should thank the people who establish the siren even if it bothers us personally.
III. Outside of Israel
I know some people will object that gentiles might get upset over the siren. If it is a real danger, then we cannot sound a siren. Absent the danger, I think we should be proud to fulfill the mitzvah with a siren that sounds twice a week, on Friday afternoon. Le-havdil, church bells sound more often and so does the mu’azzin’s call to Muslim prayer. Why are Jews the only ones apologetic about our public call to religious duties?
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 5:18) says that all Jewish communities blow the shofar before Shabbos. Ma’aseh Rokei’ach (ad loc.) points to Shabbos (35b) where it discusses exactly how they blew shofar before Shabbos in Babylonia (5 or 6 blasts). Or Samei’ach sees mentions in Avodah Zarah (70a) and Gittin (60b) to the pre-Shabbos shofar in Babylonia. The very fact that Tur and Shulchan Arukh quote this shows us that we should strive to fulfill it as best as we can. Ma’aseh Rokei’ach adds that in his day, they blew shofar before Shabbos in the Jewish quarter of Venice. Even when Yom Tov fell out before Shabbos, they would have a gentile blow shofar to prevent the violation of Shabbos.