She draws me;
Jews' age-old decree;
Through her we
are set free
for our holy day weekly ~
we simply can be
I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)
According to most traditional interpretations of Jewish religious law, Jews are forbidden from using electronic devices (such as computers, cell phones, etc.) on the Sabbath. This has its benefits and its drawbacks.
This heart has no other blood known
than flowed through all past generations
linked one-by-one through space and time
by ancient Hebrew conversations
echoing through flesh and bone
~ ever more so as I've grown ~
This mind has grasped that nothing's known
though men cling tight to correlations
creating of them gods sublime
and altars built on false foundations
they worship while I stand alone
When I step back and think about it, the blogosphere seems such a strange realm; and I’m old enough to have grown up without the Internet so I have perspective on this. Still, one need not have been born before the Internet era to be struck be the notable differences between people’s “in person” relationships and “online” relationships.
For example, what would it mean to have an anonymous “in person” friend? Here on WordPress, on the other hand, it’s entirely normal that some of the people that I interact with most regularly are anonymous.
Also, for most who do not blog anonymously, there necessarily exist limits as to what we can comfortably post because our blogs are public. Would we write publicly about difficulties in our romantic relationships, careers, childhoods, etc., given that our loved ones, coworkers, and friends could read those posts?
Indeed, while I certainly believe that meaningful relationships can be birthed, developed, and sustained online, we must consider how much we actually know of our “long distance” friends. given that we have, essentially, no access to their lives other than the glimpses they grant us. What are they like offline? What are we like?
On the other hand…
Speaking personally, I tend to feel disconnected from many of the people I interact with in person, largely because my head is often very much in the clouds. So many others seem to be focused on practical, earthly matters that wear me out.
Despite my skepticism regarding anything supernatural, I find conversations about belief, the history of religion, the sociology of religion, etc., very stimulating. Also, politics – deep political analysis fascinates me. And, of course, poetry – the exploration of the human spirit and reality filtered through the human eye.
In a sense, therefore, when I think about this blog on WordPress, and when I find myself wondering how well it actually reflects who I am despite all that I omit from it, I feel that it actually reflects much of the real me. This is where I thrive, in the realm of words and concepts, which lend themselves to introspection, poetry, and musings. These are the kinds of interactions I wish I could have with people “in person” – I’d love for all of my conversations to be over images and verses.
Really, as I consider this further, I feel that one cannot possibly know me very well today without taking an active interest in my Skeptic’s Kaddish. Here is where I explore life’s meaning.
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 Shabbasobservance (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.
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.
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.
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.