I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)

Worth watching: The Big Lebowski

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.

This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.

One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!

From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbas observance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.


Partial transcription:

Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS!

Donny: How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?
Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas.
Donny: What’s that, Walter?
Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL!
Donny: Sheesh
Walter: SHOMER SHABBAS!

Walter: Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas


Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches

Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.

In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.

The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.

Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.

Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.

Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.

-Me, The Skeptic’s Kaddish # 12, Oct. 25, 2018

Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.


I don’t blog on Shabbas

The lived experience

Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:

To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.

From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?

But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.

The impact

Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).

It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.

On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.

The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.

Blogging can wait for a day.

62 thoughts on “I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)”

  1. I think it’s a great idea to have time-out from everyday activities that you can spend connecting with your family and/or the Divine — and that was the original purpose of Shabbat, so if you have to get creative with Halakhic rulings and timers, so be it.

  2. As a christian, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of doing nothing one day a week. It seems so odd and countercultural though. I suspect if God said we need that day of rest we do need it. It’s just modern life makes it so hard to align.

    On fire versus electricity — both involve the release of energy. Whether you’re breaking chemical bonds or moving electrons through the use of magnetic fields, force and energy is involved. So I would argue the right decision was made, but for all the wrong reasons! 😉

    1. It’s just modern life makes it so hard to align.

      That is exactly true, Kittie. And I think that’s why incorporating this into a religious way of life works so well – because the majority of people who observe Shabbat in this way believe that “God said so” – and that’s way more important than other things like work, etc.

      Sincerely,
      David

  3. I really like the idea of a day of rest, not to mention a day without technology. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest for Christians, and in fact, in my grandmother’s house, we were allowed to do nothing but go to church and read the Bible on Sunday (which actually wasn’t very restful for a young child). But I think the rules are arbitrary and the work-arounds only make them seem sillier. Everyone needs a day off from work and routine, and this connected world makes it hard to manage. My daughter has to be available 24/7 whereas the Jews in her office only need to be available 24/6. Give everyone a day away, to do whatever they deem best for replenishment, regardless of religious or non-religious orientation. You are lucky that it’s acceptable in your world. I can’t imagine it ever gaining traction here, even though it’s badly, badly needed. (K)

      1. She’s a lawyer, so she knew what she was getting into. Architecture is also like that (I know a lot of architects) and the bro culture of computers. Your work is your life. At least lawyers get paid well. But that said, it’s much worse now that they are working remotely. We all know how the days blend together, and employers (and their clients) take advantage of that. And of their employees who can’t fall back on family responsibilities as an excuse. The medical people I know have time off, even if they work too many hours consecutively at times.

  4. I love this slice of your life. Interestingly, I have heard from several friends that they are also “unplugging” on their day of rest, and they are loving it! Thanks for giving us all something to consider.

  5. isn’t one of the threads woven onto the rituals a material one – eg in a hot climate you had to keep milk and meat separate if you didn’t want to get food poisoning etc? and with the fire that might then have to do with avoiding exertion 1/7? and then building layers and layers on that of ideas? Have a good Friday and Shabbat, of course.

        1. well, I personally think that all religious traditions arose in response to human needs – social, practical, etc. I don’t really believe that any of them were nothing more than incomprehensible commandments from a Higher Power… but I couldn’t tell you exactly what needs each tradition was born of.

  6. My rabbi once told a story about a time when he was young and working through a crisis with some friends just before Shabbat began. Although critical decisions had to be made, he and his friends put everything on hold at sundown. After Shabbat ended, things just seemed to work out and the issue was resolved.
    I think that sometimes we need to step back and stand resolute with what has the most meaning for us no matter what else is going on. Anyhow, that was my takeaway.

    1. Gail, I would say that you took the right lesson away 🙂

      Also – perhaps it’s a matter of not everything actually being quite so urgent and important as we think it is?

      Yours,
      David

  7. A lovely glimpse into your life. My grandmother was Jewish. My father married and converted to Christianity. Thus I’m a Christian but my cousin is Jewish and living in Israel. It makes for interesting family reunions…

    1. That’s so fun 🙂 – where in Israel does your cousin live in Israel? Do you know?

      My wife’s entire family is not Jewish (and they live in Russia) so that also makes for some interesting dynamics on our end!

      Yours,
      David

  8. I think the prohibition on electricity is a bit more complicated than “It’s like kindling a fire.” This page lists six different reasons that have been suggested, although none of them is really intuitive. Personally I regard it as a small instance of Divine intervention that all major poskim regard electricity as forbidden on Shabbat (even if only as minhag Yisrael), as contemporary Shabbat would be radically different with electricity and screens, as you indicate.

    1. You’re totally right, LM – I know it’s more complicated than that, and that nobody is actually sure of the prohibition’s exact origins… I was trying to simplify a bit for a general readership, and the fire argument is probably the most commonly offered by its proponents.

      But, as I said, you are, as you well know, entirely correct, and I know that is exactly the weakest point of this blog post 🙂

      Yours,
      David

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