Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I’m having trouble observing Shabbat. Every time I look around I find that more activities that I value are prohibited and additional restrictions are put into place.
I’m told what to wear and what not to wear, and to me it’s not comfortable or restful. I’m told what to play and what not to play on this holy day, and I feel like it’s depriving me of my needed recreation.
Am I imagining that Shabbat is getting more restrictive? And what can I do about this?
Desperately Seeking a Saner Shabbat
Inquiries like yours keep coming up, primarily from Orthodox Jews, especially during the wonderful summer months when there is so much opportunity for recreation and play, and Shabbat rules seem to get in the way. For Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews, Shabbat taboos do not loom as that much of a negative issue.
You do understand that many Orthodox Jews welcome a break from general forms of recreation, and see Shabbat as a day of spiritual endeavor, and as an opportunity for sacred recreation, for family bonding, socializing, prayer, and study, a dedicated time for communal and religious activities.
And you do realize that there is no doubt that Shabbat observance is central to the definition for all forms of Judaism. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
The problem you underscore here is that conflicting models exist of what Shabbat “rest” and “holiness” mean to different people.
The rationale for Shabbat is justified in scripture on two bases. First, it is a recollection of freedom from slavery, which means you cannot be told what to do by any taskmaster. This, at first glance, may mean to contemporary Jews to wear what you please and play as you wish.
Second, the creation of the universe is invoked as a rationale for Shabbat, because it justifies that seven-day cycle of time that serves as the basis for ceasing creative endeavors — in imitation of God. On the seventh day he rested, and so should we.
Some might imagine that this means we ought to observe a “wilderness day,” as if we were camping in the wild with no electricity, and no turning things on or off. In this model of observance these avoidances trigger the “sacred character” of Shabbat.
Many people of all faiths enjoy camping, when they can go out in the wild voluntarily and forgo the conveniences of modern life. Our sages believe that a similar diminution of modernity defines a special nature of the holy day of rest. It harkens back and binds us to the time of yore, when the Israelites and ancient Jews had no electricity or other conveniences of innovation.
The Mishnah, which Orthodoxy says contains the Oral Law received by Moses on Sinai, demarcates 39 categories of the labor that were performed in the holy tabernacle. Labors associated with four areas of cultural life — agricultural work, garment work, building, and cooking — all are prohibited on Shabbat.
And beyond that, the taboo laws add the notion of shvut — a rabbinic rule designed as an extension of prohibitions to ensure that the labor is not performed. Examples are swimming or horseback riding — both great sports — which are ruled out on Shabbat, because you might build a raft to facilitate swimming, or tear off a tree branch to use as a whip while riding. And once such activities get into the no-zone, it’s hardly possible to stop them.
Now some observers might assume that a Shabbat model of rest allows for a “casual day” — where a person can wear what they wish. Nope, lately that’s not the case. A person must wear certain prescribed garments on Shabbat — because Orthodox authorities say so. No shorts allowed. More formal wear is necessary. Best case for men, wear a white shirt and suit all day long.
Now some may believe that a Shabbat model allows for a “recreation day,” where a person can play as they wish. Nope, this is also not the case: many Orthodox authorities preach that no sports are allowed. No basketball, no baseball, no soccer, no bike riding is possible.
You have implicitly asked, what should we do about all of this, this idea of rest, without sanctioning general forms of recreation on Shabbat? What if a Shabbat walk, a Talmud class, and a meal with the family are not enough to satisfy your needs?
What if too many restrictions alienate sincere Jews and reduce the enjoyment of our beautiful faith? In the spirit of John Lennon, let’s imagine a day when we open our email or Facebook feed and find a letter signed by all our local Orthodox clergy. Let’s imagine not a missive condemning this or that, or extending yet another ban on one activity or another or declaring some new things prohibited, unclean, or treif.
Let’s imagine an apology for in the past restricting too much, and now gladly proclaiming that the following listed activities are permitted, even encouraged on Shabbat, or that these specific foods are perfectly kosher, not forbidden.
Let’s imagine a body of our religious leaders saying that we seek to make life more enjoyable, more fun, and we want you to be happy, to play more freely and engage in the recreation and rest that you see fit.
American journalist, satirist, and cultural critic H.L. Mencken observed about one past form of restrictive religion, that the definition of Puritanism is “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Let’s tell our spiritual leaders that they ought to constantly examine their concepts and models of Shabbat and of our other containers of holiness. And let’s ask them to make sure that our Jewish conceptions of holiness should never be negations of our happiness.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I wake up at night these days with a sense of dread that our country is headed full speed toward doom. Because of the confusion and incompetence of the executive administration in Washington, I feel like I am witnessing the worst era ever in American public affairs.
How do I turn off this loud alarm that keeps going off inside my head, and curtail the fears that it triggers?
Dreading Doom in Dumont
You are not the first and only one to experience worry over the public affairs of a state, and to have a sense of pending destruction.
Our bible recounted long ago the doomful narratives of our ancestors in ancient Egypt and the wisdom of one person who dealt with that by interpreting a monarch’s nightmares in his dreams. In Genesis, Joseph tells Pharaoh the meaning of his dreams: that seven fat years of gain will be followed by seven lean years of famine, and that he needs to prepare.
Our forefather says that it’s all part of God’s plan, you see. Joseph manages to store up the food in the good years. And when the tough times start, the other Israelites come to Egypt to find food, and then .opt to settle there. Sadly, they become slaves when a new ruler arises. But happily, God does redeem his people with miracles, after many years of suffering and many dramatic plagues.
You could start to draw parallels and say that in our land a new Pharaoh has arisen, who knows not the wisdom of the past generation. And you could say we are on the verge of seven bad years, perhaps of much suffering too. And I could tell you to be calm, to have faith and believe that God will send a redeemer to fix things back up.
But there’s a time for pure long-suffering faith, and a time for active engagement.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And as the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
To be sure, the contemporary American way is different from the ancient biblical way. We rarely rely on dreams or wait for inspired leaders. In our strong democracy, all good folk need to be aggressively vigilant, to be activists in the face of dreadful evil.
Your fears are real to you. So you need to look past prayer and passive faith. Get involved in fervently combatting those who you think are taking us down the path of doom. And don’t wait. Start today.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I’m so upset by the close-mindedness of my neighbors that I find it harder each day to live in my town. I feel like I must move to another place where people are more tolerant, compassionate and kind. But moving is costly and unnerving too. What do you suggest that I do?
Too Tense in Teaneck
Yes, I get it. On the one hand, you surely do need to live in a comfortable or tolerable place. And I assume you do not approve of some of the nasty bigoted comments made publicly by leaders in segments of your community, and accepted with relish by some lay people. I can see how that could disturb you.
But on the other hand, the Teaneck that I know has been remarkable over many decades for its tolerance, open-mindedness, and diversity. If you take off your blinders and look around you more broadly, you will be pleasantly surprised. Have you tried to reach out to other like-minded individuals in our lovely town and make some new friends?
And aside from considering the shortcomings of people around you and their opinions, have you looked at the positives of your location? You are a convenient 4.1 miles from the bridge to the city. You have parks and shopping and entertainment nearby, not to mention all those kosher eateries.
Well, okay, the main local park is built on a landfill, but you can hardly know that, most days. Sure, the local public golf course is parallel and adjacent to Route 80, but you can hardly hear the incessant roar of the highway traffic from the back nine holes. And true, the shopping in town is a bit limited. But note well that you do have many Walgreens and CVS stores.
A wise counselor told me long ago that a person can be happy anywhere, even with few like-minded souls with whom to share meaningful conversation and values. And even with minimal or limited local conveniences.
But no person is an island. And your negative feelings apparently are urgent and real to you. What then to do? Try starting with this.
Make a list with two columns, one for the pros and one for the cons of remaining in place. Study it over and make sure you have listed all your salient points. Then hold the list in your hand and sit down and close your eyes. Listen closely to your inner voices and heed the sensations of your gut.
Then go ahead, decide whether to move, and act accordingly. Wishing you the best of luck that you will find peace and tranquility either here or in your next hometown.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org