It’s that time again! Ask a Jew is here, and this time, we’re tackling the ever-complicated topic of Sabbath.
Before I get into this, let me give some form of my standard “Ask a Jew” disclaimer: I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be perfect in my observance. This is my understanding and my interpretation. Yours may be different, and we can both learn something from each other and be right, in our own ways. In fact, I’d LOVE to hear if you know of a different explanation, but please, please be courteous.
Far and away, the most common questions revolved around requests for explanations on the “no work” prohibition, and why we’re not allowed to turn lights on and off, etc. So, please allow me to start at the very beginning. Because if The Sound of Music has taught us nothing else, it’s that this is a very good place to start. And also, that when life gives you hideous-ass drapery, you should make some hideous-ass clothing out of it. And that children respond to high-frequency whistles as a form of obedience training. And not to trust your Nazi boyfriend. And-—okay, actually, there are many life lessons to be gleaned from The Sound of Music, it seems.
ANYWAY. Back to the topic at hand:
Why can’t you do “work” on Sabbath/turn lights on or of/drive, etc.?
In order to understand the concept of what Sabbath is, it’s important to first understand where it came from, so to speak. Most people are aware of the biblical statement “and on the seventh day, God ended his work and he rested,” which is the source for taking a day of rest. (And one of the Ten Commandments is “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”) But what IS “work” and what is “rest,” really, in terms of how we (well, I) observe Sabbath today? (She said, in her evening news anchor voice.)
There were 39 forms of “work” used in the creation of the Mishkan (the portable Temple that the Jews carried with them when they were in the desert for 40 years) eons ago, and so over time, the rabbis utilized that list to build out the activities which we’re prohibited from doing on the Sabbath today. Now, if you look at the list, you’ll see that many of the items there are seemingly inapplicable or easy to follow. For instance, “lighting a fire.” It appears easily avoidable, yes? Like, DON’T ACTIVELY LIGHT A FIRE, and you’re golden, right? Well, these 39 prohibited activities were really more of a jumping-off point, and much like the Elastic Clause in the Constitution, the rabbis determined that they were permitted to interpret and expand them to fit with the times. And so it was that “no lighting fires” became “no using electricity,” which is why we don’t turn lights on/off, use the phone, computer, watch TV, drive, and pretty much everything.
Holy Shit. How do you live? HOW DO YOU LIVE? (Okay, the question was actually “What do you do all day on the Sabbath?”)
No, really! It’s fine! And honestly, kind of fun. I’ve drifted in and out of levels of observance over the years, and I love the way we approach things at this point in our lives. We are FAR from perfect. I mean, if I need a light to give my kid the proper dose of medicine, or something, I’ll, like, use my elbow to turn it on. If I need a paper towel (“THOU SHALT NOT TEAR”), I kind of look the other way and rip that mofo off the roll. I mean, is it “wrong”? Yeah. But it’s the kind of wrong I can live with.
The Sabbath starts about an hour before sundown on Friday, and ends an hour after sundown on Saturday. Don’t worry; we have Jewish calendars that have the times on them. (God knows I ain’t standing outside with a telescope and a damn stopwatch.) We begin the Sabbath with me lighting candles (one for each member of my family), and reciting a brief prayer.
Then, we all sit down to a family meal, which begins with J making Kiddush, or reciting a blessing over wine, and then making another one over the challah. We then all devour the delicious meal that J and I cooked. Since there’s no tv or computers, it’s a mellow, quiet night; after dinner, we play games, read the kids eleventy stories, and then I sit down and do important things I haven’t been able to do all week, like read Us Weekly and drink a lot of wine while J has scotch and reads espionage books featuring characters who have names like Brock Harrington. Or Harrington Brockworth. OR BROCKTON HARRINGWORTH.
On Saturday morning, we attend services at the synagogue. By “attend,” I mean “J goes and brings T with him, while I lounge around, reading OK Magazine, halfheartedly cleaning and getting ready for lunch while the baby naps, and after she wakes up, wandering over to the synagogue wearing one of my many comically large hats or scarves about 10 minutes before services end, stopping to talk to 20 of my friends on the way.” (How spiritual!) I mean, look-—I have two kids. I used to get there relatively early and actually go in and pray, but it’s a lot more difficult now. I sort of mentally send J as my emissary, and hope God’s cool with that.
I have to say, by the way, that we do a lot of socializing on Sabbath, which really makes the day fly by. During the winter, when it starts early (on account of the sun going down around 4:00 pm), we go to friends for dinner/have them come to us most weeks. In the spring and summer, what Sabbath day (Saturday) drags ON AND ON OH MY GOD because of the late sunset, lunch is the big meal to have company/ be invited out for. And yes, that sentence was riddled with grammatical missteps. Anyway, the meal is just What Is Done, and it’s nice, because it’s a great way to actually see your friends, meet new ones, and help the time pass quickly.
We all usually nap, and head over to the park or get together with one of the kids’ friend's houses in the afternoon. Once the sun has set, we perform the “havdalah” (literally, "separation"), a one-minute service where we recite a blessing over a candle, wine, and some spices, ending the Sabbath and hoping for a good week ahead.
Again, it’s a really peaceful time in our week. People sometimes ask me, essentially, if we turn all Jack Torrance on account of the lack of technology, but I have to say, it’s a welcome break. That’s not to say that I don’t lunge for my iPhone the minute Sabbath is over, but until that moment? I really, really enjoy it.
Oh, and while we’re talking about this, I feel the need to mention that human life/health always, ALWAYS trumps the hell out of anything Sabbath-related. So, if you inadvertently chop off your hand, or you’re in labor on a Saturday, you’re getting your ass in a cab/car and going to the hospital. You’re not just sitting around, bleeding to death or having a baby in your living room (unless that was part of your birth plan, of course) because it’s Sabbath.
I’m curious about the restrictions on the use of electricity for some sects - why is it okay to use lights but you can't turn them on?
Good question! The prohibition is really against creating/starting a fire, which, as stated above, has been interpreted to encompass electricity. So, we leave certain lights on throughout our home over the Sabbath, and we turn our oven on before the Sabbath starts (leaving it on a very low setting throughout the Sabbath), and set our air conditioners on timers. We USE electricity, we just don’t…actively do so. If that made any sense at all.
What if a bris happens to fall during a Shabbat? Which takes precedence?
A bris (ritual circumcision and OH MY GOD LET US NOT EVEN GO DOWN THIS ROAD) takes precedence; even though it involves, um, cutting (one of the prohibited activities), it is still performed on the Sabbath.
Do you follow the same rules if you're not at home, like if you're on vacation or something like that?
For the most part, yes. I mean, we were away in the Bahamas a few years ago over a weekend, and we were staying on a very high floor in the hotel. There was no way we were walking up that many stairs, so we just kind of accidentally bumped into the button for the floor we needed. Again, it’s not the RIGHT thing to do, but you asked, so I’m being honest.
Please discuss Kosher kitchens.
A few weeks ago, this article hit the New York Times. And while I actually know the people who were profiled there, and they are lovely, I did sort of roll my eyes at the article ONLY because it subtly made it seem like this—-double sinks, warming drawers, two ovens, etc.-- was What You Have To Do in order to “really” have a kosher kitchen, and that’s simply not the case. My kitchen-- with its one oven, one sink, and dearth of warming drawers--is completely kosher. I look at it like this: You can throw your kid a birthday party with a petting zoo, magician, and fireworks, or you can plunk a cupcake with a candle down in front of him. Either way, it’s still a party. One’s fancier, to be sure, but both WORK. Same thing here; there are basic rules to abide by, but beyond that, it’s all just enhancements; variations on a theme. The bare bones: you must have separate dairy and meat dishes/cutlery. You can’t cook dairy and meat together, or wash those dishes together. You can’t cook on the Sabbath. (...But you can heat up certain things on a pre-existing heat source…it’s a bit involved. If you’re really interested in the intricacies, let me know.) That’s…pretty much it, in terms of out-and-out requirements. REALLY.
Thanks so much for sending me your questions!
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(The contest on my other blog has been extended, and the way to enter is now MUCH easier. Also, DUUUUUDE. My son is pretty much potty trained! WHEEEE!)