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.
Variations on a Theme: Shabbat Highs and Lows
People observe Shabbat in the strangest, sometimes most inconsistent ways. Here is some of what I [have] found in my interviews.
David, a stockbroker, uses the telephone to make outgoing calls on the Sabbath but never takes incoming calls. One day a week, he wants to set the telephone agenda. Syd, a college professor whose mother is in a nursing home, answers the phone but does not call out. “What if she’s trying to reach me?” he wonders.
Gloria, our grandmotherly neighbor at our summer bungalow in upstate New York, doesn’t observe the Sabbath, except for one thing: she won’t knit or crochet. I have met others of her generation who also single out one activity that they refrain from doing: cooking, laundry, cleaning, and putting on makeup. One thing they choose; everything else is okay.
Sandy, an executive of the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, drives his car on Shabbat, but not on the freeways. Streets are okay, he explains, “but the freeways remind me of work.”
Leslie, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Detroit, told me that she drives but doesn’t carry money. This became a problem one Saturday when she encountered a toll on her way to visit her mother. She began to explain to the toll taker that she was a Sabbath observer and didn’t carry money, but he quickly cut her off. “Lady, then why are you driving?” She convinced the toll taker to let her through.
Ilan, an Orthodox college student who sleeps with his girlfriend on Friday nights, tears open his condom packages early in the day so that he does not violate the Sabbath by tearing unnecessarily.
In one Orthodox home I know, the television stays off on Shabbat, as do the CD player, the radio, and the computer. No one answers the telephone, and all the men wear yarmulkes. But on Saturday afternoons, the family’s fifteen-year-old son sits down to play the piano for an hour. He plays Chopin and Mozart and his own compositions. “He needs to express himself,” the father explains. “And this is how he does it.”
Fred, a Jewish educator in Providence, Rhode Island, observes Shabbat but takes the summers off. His wife, he explains, simply can’t resist the beach in July and August. That’s the only time of the year they drive on Saturdays.
Traditionally, one doesn’t smoke on Shabbat, but Jerome, a retired corporate executive from Westport, Connecticut, honors the day with a Havana. “I can’t think of a better time to smoke my favorite cigar,” he explained.
In his youth, my Orthodox friend Lenny was a Deadhead, one of those devotees who followed the Grateful Dead around the country getting high as a kite. But Lenny couldn’t bring himself to smoke pot on Shabbat. His solution: He baked hash brownies on Friday and ate them on Saturday for a special Shabbat high.
Reprinted with permission from Being Jewish, published by Simon & Schuster.
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Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.