Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon & Schuster.
Technically, the laws of Shabbat [can seem] draconian. There are thirty-nine official “don’ts,” and they each have subcategories that add hundreds more. One cannot mow the lawn, hunt for food, light a fire, plant a seed, cook food, boil water, sew on a button, erect a tent, use a hammer, bake a cake, or gather kindling.
Derived from these ancient laws, a host of modern restrictions has been added by scholars, so now it is forbidden [according to Orthodox interpretation of the law] to turn on a computer, drive a car, flick on a light switch, talk on the phone, replace a battery, or watch television. The list is a long one. Conservative rabbis prohibit many of these same activities, but the level of observance among the Conservative laity is not as widespread as it is among the Orthodox. Reform rabbis, for the most part, say that these ancient restrictions are no longer binding, but they increasingly add that if people find meaning in the restrictions, they should incorporate them into their religious lives.
There are, of course, many ways to celebrate Shabbat. Some people light candles at the appointed hour, and others do it later in the evening when everyone arrives home and gathers around the table. Some remain for a family meal, and others say a blessing and scatter. Some relax by watching a family movie on HBO, and others catch up on their reading. Some unplug the phone, and others use it to connect with relatives they’ve been missing all week. Some won’t touch a car; others will use it to go to synagogue. Some will drive to synagogue but not to the mall. Some will drive to the beach but not the mall. And there are those who go to the mall but not to the office.
The important thing about Sabbath observance is that you make the day different in big ways and in small ways. For example, I was brought up not to carry my wallet on the Sabbath, which is a good idea because it keeps me from carrying money and therefore from spending money. Shabbat is not a day for commerce. But everyone around me wore watches. Several years ago, when I was a reporter who lived by the watch, I stopped wearing my watch on the Sabbath. By the strict laws of Shabbat, there is nothing wrong with wearing a watch, but not wearing one liberated me from my enslavement to time. Shabbat gives us the opportunity one day a week to live for ourselves and not for the clock.