Shabbat in the Modern World

In modern times, non-Orthodox Jews have largely abandoned Shabbat observance, despite many innovations intended to encourage it.

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Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Sabbath, a 1961 pamphlet for American Jewish high school students, published by the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO). The author's reference point is explicitly American, but the reality he describes is equally true of diaspora Jewish communities worldwide, including the cities of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If Shabbat has meant so much to Jews throughout the ages, and has symbolized so many important religious and moral values, why is it that so many Jews today in the United States neglect Shabbat altogether? Why has the period from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday become "just another day" for them? 

Changes in How Non-Orthodox Jews Understand Shabbat

The answer lies in the radical changes that have occurred in the thinking and in the problems of living which have taken place in modern times. Formerly, Jews looked upon the Sabbath as a day set apart by God, to be observed and honored because on it "He rested from all the work which He had done." In the biblical book of Deuteronomy, Israel is commanded to observe the Sabbath in order to recall that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and to be inspired by the Sabbath to act justly toward their workers by allowing them a day of rest. Thus, in the tradition, the Sabbath was regarded as God-given, and its observance commanded by God Himself.

shabbat in the modern world

Orthodox Jews today continue to consider the Sabbath God-given, and its observances commanded by God Himself. For them, therefore, the Sabbath is no problem, except insofar as keeping the Sabbath involves them in greater personal sacrifices than they would have had to make in former times. As Orthodox Jews, however, they do not shrink from such sacrifices; indeed, they welcome the opportunity to sanctify the name of the Eternal.

This pamphlet is intended for those young Jews who are not Orthodox, who do not find it possible to accept the traditional version of the origin of the Sabbath as contained in the Bible, who see the Sabbath as one of the great cultural achievements of Jewish experience, as an historic development reaching from earliest days to the present. For some, it functions as a custom, or a folkway, for others as a sacred tradition, but not as divinely commanded.

This non-Orthodox attitude toward the Sabbath grows out of a general change in attitude toward the Torah. It is a by-product of modern education in history and the sciences, which has undermined belief in the literal truth of the biblical text. This does not mean that those who hold it wish to cease being Jews. It does not mean that they must find some new meaning and purpose in the Sabbath, and some new manner of observing it, if they are to find in the Sabbath a source of inspiration.

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Rabbi Ira Eisenstein

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (1906-2001) was a leader of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism and the first president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.