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Jewish World Review
Jan. 20, 2006
/ 20 Teves, 5766
Joe on the Plane and the Meaning of Sabbath
Rabbi David Fohrman
The first in a series of five articles
The idea of the Sabbath as central as it is within Judaism is introduced for the very first time in the Torah in just a few short verses. If you're not careful, you'll miss it entirely.
And it's not just the Biblical text that can easily pass us by. The experience of the Sabbath itself is also something that can elude us. It, too, can simply pass us by.
When I say "us", here, I am not talking about those who have never had the opportunity to observe a traditional Sabbath. I am talking about even the most "orthodox" among us. Ironically, the more punctiliously one observes the Sabbath, the more one can tend to "take it for granted". It just becomes part of the weekly routine. We refrain from performing "Sabbath labor" almost instinctively. The light switch, the telephone, the car we Orthodox Jews avoid these on the Sabbath without a second thought. It seems as natural to stay away from these things on the Seventh Day, as it does to use them during the week.
So it can seem surprising to us "Sabbath Insiders" when someone from "outside the system" questions the meaning of our day of rest. Imagine yourself a fine, upstanding Orthodox Jew for a minute. You are taking one of those cross-country flights from NYC to Los Angeles, and a nice, clean-cut fellow we'll call Joe settles in next to you. About fifteen minutes after takeoff, Joe introduces himself, and after some initial pleasantries, he gets down to business.
"You seem to be an Orthodox Jew... You know, I'm a Jew, too, but not the Orthodox kind."
He continues a little sheepishly: "Look, I hope you're not offended if I ask, but, you keep this day of rest, the Sabbath, every Saturday, right?"
You nod your head and reach for the peanuts, a little suspicious about where this conversation is going.
"See I never understood this Sabbath deal", Joe confesses to you. "The Bible says you are supposed to rest because G-d rested after creating the world. But if G-d is All-Powerful, if He can literally do anything, well, how much effort was it for Him to create the world? You know, it wasn't like he was tired afterwards. So how come He had to rest?"
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You glance at your watch. Five hours left to the flight. And it's a full plane. No chance to change seats now.
Joe breaks the awkward silence.
"I hope you don't mind my imposing on you like this", he says, a little apologetically. You glance up at him, give him a nervous smile and tell him that it's OK, he can continue if he likes.
He jumps at the opportunity:
"Well that's great thanks so much for hearing me out. You know, I have one other question, if you don't mind. Just a little one". He shows you exactly how small with the tiny space he makes between his thumb and forefinger. You nod, and he continues.
"I've been reading the Bible a little, and the Bible says we are supposed to rest on the Sabbath. But a couple years back I was a guest for the weekend at this fellow's home his name was Shmuely; he was Orthodox, too, just like you..."
Joe points to your yarmulke to help you get the point, then he continues:
" … Anyway, the Friday night meal was about to start and I noticed it was dark in the room. Someone forgot to turn on the lights before sundown. So I reach for the light switch, and it was like, whoa! I was about to do some really awful thing. The little kid next to me catches my arm and says no you can't do that. Everyone around the table is just trying to get me to back away from the light switch, like it was a gun or something. And I ask, you know, 'what's wrong with turning on a little light'. Everybody starts getting very nervous and tells me that its work to turn on the light. You're not allowed to work on Shabbes."
"It seemed a little strange to me, but I accepted it," Joe tells you. "Who was I to argue? But then the next day, they invited some extra company for the afternoon meal, and they had to bring another table into the dining room. And Shmuely, my host, asks me if I wouldn't mind helping him drag a table up from the basement. So I helped him. But I'll tell you, it was a pretty heavy table. That was not an easy trip up the stairs."
Joe concludes: "Shmuely seemed a little embarrassed and was telling me something about how dragging a table isn't one of the forbidden 'categories of labor'. I told him not to worry, I didn't mind. But I'm thinking to myself, Why isn't that called 'labor'? Boy, it's a lot more work to carry the table than it is to turn on a little light switch!' I didn't ask that question then, but I'm asking you now. Can you help me out with any of this?"
Joe waits earnestly for his answer. You look at your watch one more time and take a deep breath. It's going to be a very long flight.
What would you tell good ol' Joe? How could you make the Shabbes that you experience weekly become meaningful to him? Sure, you could tell him about cholent and the wonders of a Shabbes nap; you could even explain to him how nice and peaceful it seems to have a day when you don't have to worry about answering the phone during dinner. But that's not really going to answer Joe's questions. How could you really explain any of this to him?
We'll come back next week and compare notes.
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JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
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© 2006, Rabbi David Fohrman