Violating Someone Else’s Sabbath

I recently received an email from my local synagogue‘s Brotherhood, asking for volunteers to help with some much-needed upkeep work at our Jewish cemetery.

This isn’t the first time since moving to Jackson that I was petitioned to help with some manual labor on behalf of the congregation. However, it was the first time I was finally able to help — as an itinerant educator and rabbi for the ISJL, I’m often on the road during these opportunities, and have never been in town and able to help with latke frying or sukkah building. The weekend seemed like the best time to do some manual labor—more sunlight, more time, and hopefully more volunteers. Since Saturday is Shabbat, we wanted to avoid work on that day. Also visiting cemeteries on Shabbat is generally discouraged (we’re supposed to be happy on the holiday, after all). So the volunteer day was set for a Sunday.

On the morning of our cemetery project, I packed up my truck with shovels, rakes, and an axe (to take care of any problem roots – whatever it takes!). I drove over to the cemetery, a short distance from my house, and had to slow down because so many drivers parked their cars on the street. At first I thought, “WOW! So many volunteers!” But, on this pretty day, I was surprised to meet such a small group just outside the gates.

After saying the customary prayer upon entering a cemetery after not having been in one for quite some time (if one has not visited a cemetery in 30 days, that person should recite a blessing addressing the deceased who were laid to rest in that spot), I figured out why all the cars were there: The Beth Israel cemetery is right across the street from First Presbyterian, a very large church.

This prompted a conundrum, one might even say slight awkwardness, that I felt creep inside my brain. Here I was, on what was a “regular” weekend day to me, getting down and dirty in my Carhartt gear. We removed sod, we chopped tree roots, and we dug out rocks. As I heated up enough to take off my jacket, I noticed a steady stream of people in suits and ties, fancy sundresses, with Bibles in their hands. I wondered what they thought of us as we violated their Sabbath. After all, while they were praying, we were definitely violating the letter and spirit of the law, if you believe the Sabbath falls on Sunday.

And, it got worse. We were preparing the ground for some new planting, and that meant roto-tilling the terrible clay we have in Mississippi. I was told that I would take the lead position, and spent several hours running the loud, two-cycle powered machine. It was important work. But with 8:30, 9:40, and 11:00 arrivals, I felt like a lot of eyes were on me as I noisily prepped the soil for planting. A few folks stopped by and were nice enough to ask questions. However, every time I took a break, I could only imagine how relieved the pastor must have been that there was no more noise outside. No matter how much sweat dropped, how much my forearms burned, or how much my back ached, I always felt like there were eyes on me while I was plowing the ground.

In the end, our group accomplished not only a lot of general clean-up work around the cemetery, but also the large task of prepping the entrance to the cemetery for some decorative bushes and landscaping, which will hopefully provide future mourners with a meaningful moment.

To our neighbors, I wish to issue an apology, even if you don’t say you need one. I know that the whole “not working on the Sabbath” thing is interpreted differently, religion to religion and sect to sect — but I sincerely hope your prayer service was not too interrupted by a group of Southern Jews simply out to do a mitzvah on a Sunday morning.

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