JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2002 / 8 Teves, 5763

You don't have to be Orthodox to cherish the Sabbath

By Hillel Halkin

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | "More than Jews have kept the Sabbath," wrote Ahad Ha'am in a remark that has become proverbial, "the Sabbath has kept the Jews."

The words were written in a little essay - actually, a magazine column about the length of this one - occasioned by a protest in Berlin against the growing trend of Reform synagogues to move the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday.

Ahad Ha'am, himself a traditional though far from scrupulously observant Jew, was particularly impressed by the fact that the protesters were liberal Jewish intellectuals who "openly state that they do not personally observe the Sabbath or the other laws of Judaism. And yet," he wrote, "they have banded together to defend the Sabbath with all the means at their disposal as a historic institution belonging to our entire people, and for national reasons alone, devoid of the slightest trace of religious hypocrisy."

That was in 1898. Enviable Berlin Jewry! Go find a group of secular Jewish intellectuals to defend Sabbath in Israel today.

This column is occasioned by the recent demonstrations in Kfar Saba - by religious Jews only - against the opening on Saturday of a large shopping mall in that city. So what else is new? Massive Sabbath shopping, once unimaginable in Israel, is today an entrenched fact of life. Anyone driving past the Shefayim Shopping Center north of Tel Aviv on a Sabbath morning, and observing the long lines of traffic waiting to join the thousands of cars already in the parking lot knows that the shopping mall has already become Israel's favorite Saturday excursion site.

The odd thing, as I say, is that our liberal intellectuals, generally happy to inveigh against the evils of a money-mad economy that tramples all other values on its stampede to the cash register, appear to regard Sabbath shopping as a form of national liberation.

"A modern society," says Meretz Knesset member Uzi Even in defense of it, "operates seven days a week" - and who doesn't want to be modern, especially if it's as easy as queuing up to buy garden furniture instead of spending the day listening to birdsong in the garden?

But there's nothing, really, very odd about it. More than some Jews love Haman - to reverse another old proverb - they hate Mordechai. Our liberal intellectuals aren't so much enthralled by the trundle of shopping carts as they are by the prospect of striking another blow against Jewish tradition. A no-holds-barred capitalism may be a bad thing for factory workers in Indonesia, but it's welcome in Israel if it can help destroy a 3,000-year-old Jewish tradition.

THIS TRADITION is one that Judaism has every reason to feel proud of. It is easy to forget that, until Mosaic law came along, the seven-day work week was a universal norm --- or at least universal for that great majority that did not have others to do its work for it. Most of us can't even imagine what it must be like to go through life, week after week, month after month, year after year, without a break. Lucky us! There are people in the world today who still have to live like that.

Of course, shopping isn't exactly work, except for the small number of people selling to the large number of people buying, and they get a day off some other time. But Jewish tradition is sophisticated. It knew what it was doing when it also prohibited on Sabbath a wide range of other activities, among them handling money or even talking or thinking about it. The idea is to let the mind rest, too, and not just the body. A Sabbath on which you can't buy, or sell, or go to the bank, or place an order with your stockbroker, or get a bill in the mail, or have to make a financial decision is - in theory, at least - a day off not only from work but from the economic worries and calculations that gnaw at us the rest of the week.

And the fact is that the theory works, even for many Jews who aren't religiously observant. I know it has worked for me, not because I have kept Sabbath laws in my own life (I haven't and I sometimes regret it), but because until now I have lived in a society that kept a small number of them.

This has been true in general, and it has been especially true in those times in my family's life when we were financially hard-pressed and did not know how we were going to get through the month. There have been nights in the middle of which I have woken up regularly, panicky about money - except for Friday nights, because the next day was a day on which you could not do anything about money anyway.

At such times in particular Sabbath has been a refuge for me, even if little was done in my home to honor it apart from lighting candles and sometimes saying kiddush. It helped to keep me from psychologically going under.

It has been a refuge for all of us, for thousands of years. There is a wisdom even in many of its restrictions that seem too onerous for us to obey, such as not traveling or using the telephone. But there is a special wisdom in its restrictions regarding money and the acquisition of possessions. These are things that we think about, and are forced to think about, far too much as it is. A week without a break from them is bad for the human spirit and bad for Israeli society, one of the loveliest things about which has always been that Saturday was a special day.

I have no illusions. The shopping malls that open on Saturday - and there will be more and more of them - will not shut down again. They are part of the relentless commercialization of our lives that we have no real power to resist, for if even the Jewish Sabbath, that mightiest dike of all, cannot hold back the tide, nothing can. Our liberal intellectuals will tell us that we should be happy about this, because we are now freer than ever to spend not only our money, but our time, as we wish. And in any case, the protesters in Berlin won their battle. The Jewish Sabbath was not moved to the Christian Sunday. On the contrary. We have moved the post-Christian Sunday to the Jewish Sabbath.

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JWR contributor Hillel Halkin is an Israel-based translator and author, most recently of "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel." (Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Hillel Halkin