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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Innovations in Jewish Life

In order to accommodate Jewish living to modern American life, a number of innovations were introduced. The earliest was the change from Saturday to Sunday in the synagogue (or temple, because this was tried by the Reform leaders). The idea was to conduct services at a time when people are generally free from other duties.

After a number of years, most Reform temples have given up the practice, perhaps because more and more of their members come from traditional backgrounds, and are accustomed to a Saturday-Sabbath. Moreover, many Reform temples find that, unless the desire to worship is present, men and women do not avail themselves of the opportunity to attend services even when they are free to do so. They sleep late, or play golf, or attend to personal chores.

Another innovation has been the late Friday night service, beginning at eight o'clock or somewhat later. Since most men do not arrive home before sunset on Friday, they cannot attend the service of "welcoming Shabbat" (Kabbalat Shabbat); and since they are assumed to be busy on Saturday, this service is expected to meet their needs. Many Reform and most Conservative synagogues have introduced the late Friday service.

Still another innovation has been the Oneg Shabbat (literally, the joy of the Sabbath). This often takes the form of a social, with refreshments, community singing and sometimes discussion. It takes place, usually, at the conclusion of the Friday evening service.

In order to adjust Sabbath law to modern conditions, the majority of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of America (Conservative) have interpreted the halakhah (Jewish law) to permit riding on Shabbat provided the use of automobile or public transportation is for the purpose of attending synagogue service. Another decision permits the use of electricity on the Sabbath. The Orthodox, however, including the great rabbinic scholars, have taken the position that [these laws are] not subject to such interpretation and that we cannot interpret Jewish law simply to sanction what is, according to Jewish religious law, a violation.

Since so many young Jews grow up these days in homes which do not observe the Sabbath, opportunity is given them to experience it at summer camps and institutes conducted by Jewish youth groups. There, far from the usual distractions, and under the expert guidance of leaders, they actually live the Shabbat and catch some of its spirit.

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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.