Tag Archives: Shabbat

Two Faces of Shabbat

5 Jun
English: Shabbat Candles Deutsch: Schabbatkerzen

Shabbat candles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the course of this academic year, I have been learning Hilchot Shabbat. Recently, I began taking a smicha test on that material. The exam is take-home, which might lead some to make suggestions about its simplicity, or question the validity of an open-book exam for such an important topic. I would like to deal with neither of those challenges now, except to say that the test is quite difficult, requiring considerable probing of the depths of legal details. In my answering of the multi-faceted test questions, I have come to think about Shabbat, and said details, in a different way, and asking the following: do the prohibitions make Shabbat? or Because it is Shabbat, certain activities are prohibited?

Prohibitions make Shabbat. After pouring over volumes of text that are filled with minute details, often prohibitions, it seemed clear that Shabbat is created by way of forbidding a litany of activities, down to the way we tear (or not) toilet paper and make tea. We define the day by prohibiting activities that prevent the day from passing like all the rest. Imagine the usual process for making a cup of tea, now imagine having to significantly alter the process because of prohibited ways of cooking. Yes, it can be burdensome and intimidating, especially for a novice, but it creates the atmosphere of a different kind of day, one where individuals must rethink basic tasks in a way that sanctifies the day. Even meals are different. They are festive, sanctified with wine, and usually involves a gathering of friends or family, and to allow the feeling of uniqueness to extend beyond the meals, additional prohibitions exist. For me, it is hard to imagine Shabbat as Shabbat when the day’s activities are ‘normal,’ where cell phones, televisions, and the internet are readily at hand. So in that sense, yes. The prohibitions give birth to an atmosphere that protects the sanctity of the day.

Speaking of atmosphere, it leads me to the other side of the equation. It assumes the existence of a day called Shabbat, that is distinct in its nature from the balance of the week. It is knowing that every seventh day will be somehow distinct from the preceding six. But then we have to set upon the job of making that day different, how is this done? Through prohibited activities. We effectively erect fences that prevent us from crossing into areas that would damage the atmosphere of the day, by doing so we stay away from what the halakhists call “the 39 melachot.” These so called fences are placed around tasks that are not “Shabbosdik,” or not in keeping with maintaining the holiness of Shabbat. Thus because there is a day called Shabbat, we forbid activities that create tension with the underlying assumption of Shabbat itself.

The ability think about Shabbat in both directions has proved constructive for me. It has cemented my understanding of why I must make my tea differently on Shabbat as well as why I should not simply set a timer for my television (if I owned one), although it might be technically within the letter of the law. So as much as halakha creates Shabbat by way of preventing a litany of daily tasks, the assumed existence of a day of rest is manifested by ceasing from creative and quasi-creative activities. It is with these theories that I have found the lenient and stringent laws more compelling, as well as understanding their necessity in creating a mechanism for a halkically observant Shabbat.

Happy Shabbating, I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

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D’var Torah: Parashat Tzav (Rishon)

22 Mar
IDF Soldiers at the Western Wall

IDF Soldiers at the Western Wall (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

With great power comes great responsibility. Now that the Tabernacle has been completed and we have received the instructions on how to make the appropriate offerings, the next piece of the sacrificial puzzle must be put into place. Who will be commanded with the proper administration and sacrifice of the offerings brought to the alter? Aaron and his sons. The priests are given certain rights which are detailed early in the parasha, but are also expected to be responsible for this critical element in the Israelite’s relationship with God. Similarly, army service in the State of Israel is a responsibility that accompanies the privilege and rights of living in the Middle-East’s only democracy. This week I completed my tzav rishon (first order or first command) which is the official beginning of the army’s draft process.

Tzav rishon consists of multiple stations on different floors of the local draft office. An interview to verify personal information, psychological aptitude, and a Hebrew exam, even for native speakers. A complete medical evaluation, including walking through the hall with the sample cup, two 19 year old girls with an extremely tight blood-pressure cuff, and a bunch of waiting. Finally, a test called the psycho-technical exam (IQ test basically), from which I was, for reasons unknown, thankfully exempt, as well as the verification of details for lone soldiers. Unfortunately I have to return to do the last step, but I was pleased that it only took me four and a half hours. Granted I arrived at 7:15 whereupon I was greeted by soldiers boarding a bus to begin basic training and a dear friend who was on guard duty. I will spare everybody the details, but there were a few moments worth noting.

1) I took the Hebrew test, and could not, at the beginning, understand a single word. The girl administering the test looked at me and said, in Hebrw of course, “Oh, don’t worry, even most native speakers don’t know these words. I started you with the highest level of difficulty.” Great, thanks for that. Luckily I did well enough on the rest of the Hebrew to avoid spending any time in the dreaded Army ulpan.

2) While I was waiting to see the doctor, a young man sat down next to me, a Haredi yeshiva student, of which there were a bunch. He needed help filling out his medical survey, so I helped as best I could. I told him to sign at the bottom once he was finished answering. He looked at me sternly, sat up straight, and told me that his rebbe at yeshiva told him not to sign any papers. Great. I told him that he was just verifying his health, and that it was “safe” to sign. At that moment I was too outnumbered to get into an argument about why he should be serving in the army. I assume that those sitting around me had benefited all their lives from being citizens of Israel, something that has only been true for me since August, and now that they have reached the point of responsibility they were looking for any way out. Imagine if Aaron and his sons used that method.

3) Upon completing the medical section, the doctor offered me a piece of matza to take with me. Only in Israel can they first reduce you to a piece of meat as a means of assessing your value to the army and then offer you a large overpriced water cracker known as shmura matza.

It may be possible to expand the metaphor of rights and responsibilities to the larger biblical emphasis on the Israelites as the chosen people. Leaving aside potentially problematic elements of this notion that arise in contemporary times, the fact is that even as they were chose, the Israelites were given a set of responsibilities. They were to uphold their half of the relationship with God, and later to become a light unto the nations. Aaron and his sons find themselves in a similar situation, enjoying the rights that come with being a member of the priestly class, while shouldering the burden of being the emissaries of the Israelites in their service to God. In modern Israel, every citizen is protected equally under the law, yes there are problems, but every citizen has the right to vote, protest, and hold public office. With those rights come the responsibility, the command, to participate actively in the defense or building of The State. So when I am face to face with individuals who are doing everything they can to avoid national service (civilian or military), I want to let loose and remind them to follow in the steps of Aaron and his sons, as they are given זכויות (rights) they are also commanded (צו).

Shabbat shalom.