Project Genesis

The Calendar and Holidays (incl. Sabbath)

The Sabbath

Sabbath Restrictions …Why?

Question: Observing Shabbat (Saturday, the Sabbath day) to me means spending time with the family. I do not think the amount of electricity I use on any day of the week will undermine my capabilities of providing good morals and creating a good home. Am I wrong in not wanting to keep Shabbat by “the book”?

Answer: From here on in I’m going to write while “dressed” as an orthodox Rabbi rather than as a relationship counselor. Leaving aside the question of authenticity (i.e., “did G-d actually command us to keep all of these laws or not”? – a subject all its own), keeping Shabbat “by the book” is, from my perspective, a most rational and satisfying approach.

From the perspective of an outsider, the 39 categories which make up the Torah’s definition of Shabbat labor don’t seem so meaningful in the context of our modern lives. Why, indeed, should anyone (God included) care whether or not I flip on a light?

On closer examination, though, these categories seem a bit random. What do they really represent? Are they an attempt to force us to rest? So how will avoiding turning on a hot water tap help that along? And why is it permitted to drag a whole 16 serving china set out to the dining room table and back? That’s hardly restful!

Here’s how the Nineteenth Century Rabbi S.R. Hirsch saw it: We believe that God created everything and maintains it and that He also molded the Jewish nation specifically into the People of the Torah. He owns the world and its historic forces. Assuming that’s true, it would be of some importance to remember that and absorb it into our world view – if only to express appropriate gratitude for everything we’re given for free. So He owns the world. But He lets us use it. We are free to act as owners; to (responsibly) manipulate the abundant natural resources to serve our own interests and better our selves.

But how easy it would be to become so involved in our manipulation and creativity that we could come to forget His role!

So one day a week, we refrain from 39 categories of creative and manipulative labor as a reminder that, in reality, it all really belongs to Him seven days a week (and that it’s in God’s kindness that we’re allowed its full use most of the time). Cooking is nothing less than taking organic material from its natural state and changing its form to serve our pleasure. Using electrical lighting is nothing less than than converting the power of the atom (for instance) into usable energy – to make our lives easier. But dragging the chinaware? That manipulates nothing (unless you drop them, of course – my wife and I wisely chose to avoid china altogether in our home – in favor of Corelle – and have had far fewer broken pieces to sweep up as a result)!

Relaxing at home with the children and spending an hour or two in the synagogue is pleasant enough. But it hardly compares with viscerally and passionately acknowledging the role of G-d Himself in our universe. And besides that, there’s a refined sense to Shabbat that really can’t be created without the commitment to go all the way. I remember reading about an Orthodox engineering professor (I think from Chicago) who encouraged his (mainly non-Jewish) students to undertake a “technology Shabbat” once a week – to resolutely turn off the email, blackberrys, browsers and even telephones in order to reclaim something human from our gadget-driven lives. Apparently, the program (which was not meant at all to be a religious experience) was well received. But it could only work with a complete shut down.

With best wishes,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Ottawa, Canada

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