Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing rabbi, at a U.S. Air Force base in Iraq. (Elizabeth Rissmiller/U.S. Air Force)

Shabbat in the Modern World

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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