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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Changes in Lifestyle and Environment

This change of outlook may be referred to as an intellectual change. But changes in the manner of life also play their part. When Jews lived, for example, in small villages in Europe, they were not confronted by the challenges of a dynamic culture outside. The Jewish community was virtually self-contained. On the Sabbath, everyone stopped working, everyone made the day holy. One could not spend money on Shabbat because no stores were open. One could not ride on Shabbat because there was no public transportation.

When Jews came to this country (especially those who came from East-European countries), they found themselves, for the first time, in the midst of a bustling, growing, expanding community, of which they formed only a small part. All about them, people went about their business on Saturday as though it were not Shabbat at all. On Sunday, of course, offices and stores and factories were closed. But this was not Shabbat for the Jews.

In addition, Jews were faced with the problem of striking roots in the new world. They came as foreigners, not knowing the language, not familiar with the ways of America, and since they came virtually penniless, they had to roll up their sleeves and work hard. Often, they had to save their pennies to buy passage to America for relatives who had remained behind. As a result, many simply had to forget, for the time being, about Shabbat, as they were forced to neglect other traditional Jewish ways.

Conditions today are very different. But while it is true that many Jews are in a position to abstain from work on the Sabbath, they have lost the habit of setting this day apart for prayer, study, and relaxation. The five-day-week has transformed Saturday into a day for shopping, going to the doctor or dentist, taking music lessons, going to the movies, playing golf, and many other activities which are obviously not part of Shabbat.

Even those Jews who have made a special effort to maintain Shabbat observance find that, due to the changed conditions of our way of living, conflicts arise. For example, a Jewish family that wishes to attend the synagogue on Shabbat may find that it lives too far away to walk there. If the family wishes to go to services, it must violate the Sabbath by riding.

New Inventions

In addition, new inventions like the electric light, the telephone, the radio and television, which never existed in former ages, have become an integral part of the lives of modern people. By a strict interpretation of rabbinical law, these may not be used on Shabbat, but many American Jews question whether it is possible, or even desirable, to live in modern America according to the strict interpretation of the law.

It is true that, from the rabbinic point of view, "work" was not equated with the amount of effort involved; to light a torch from one already burning was prohibited though little actual "work" was needed. [The separate Biblical prohibition against lighting a fire does not actually refer to work.] A heavy burden could be carried in the home, though a much lighter one could not be carried into the public domain. Nevertheless, many Jews cannot help but say: whatever may have been the reasons for the rabbinic interpretation of what was and what was not work, the fact remains that we make use today of many machines and devices which the ancient rabbis could never have dreamed of, and it must be our responsibility to determine whether their use violates the spirit of the Sabbath. The flipping of a switch to turn on the lights, or to ignite the motor of a car, is something new. Therefore, many Jews believe that it may be necessary to redefine for our age just what "work" means.

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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.