The Conspiracy

Shades of Shabbat Observance

When the power at my house went out last Thursday night, it was an instant reminder of my technology dependency. I am almost ashamed to admit that I hardly knew what to do with myself.  After spending about a minute in shock, I stumbled my way in to the living room and sat down. A few of my roommates were already there, and for a brief moment, we all admired the tranquility of the darkness. But before any real conversation could take place, they pulled out their respective smart phones and became thoroughly engrossed in them.

Watching them focus intently on these miniature devices, I became nostalgic for the few times that authentic bonding took place during previous power outages. During these instances, a lack of distractions forced me to engage with people face-to-face; a type of interaction that has suffered as technology has grown.  And all of this reminded me of Shabbat, a time dedicated to, among other things, rest and family. In my mind, it is also an opportunity to unplug from the constant information flow of news headlines, status updates and everything in between.

However, as an admittedly lackadaisical observer of Shabbat, I sometimes wonder about where to draw the line. Last week, I did not use the internet or watch television. I did go to work on Saturday morning. But that’s because Shabbat for me centers on (slightly) disconnecting. That is my interpretation, and not checking e-mail or Facebook is incredibly relaxing.

In another Shabbat-related post, Ben Sales notes that there are many Shabbat interpretations throughout the Jewish world. But I ask: Should this variation be encouraged? And in these interpretations, which is more important, ritual observance or the general premise of rest? One would undoubtedly receive different answers from different sources. No matter where you stand, they are some interesting questions to keep in mind.

3 Older Responses to “Shades of Shabbat Observance”

  1. Yakov Wolf
    December 13, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    “Should this variation be encouraged?”

    I have to admit to being a little confused by this question on several levels. When asking whether such variation should be encouraged, it naturally begs the question “Encouraged by Whom?” Who is in charge of deciding what is or is not encouraged or discouraged? Hillel? The haredi Chief Rabbinate? The Federations? New Voices or Jewschool? The real question, I think, ought to be “Should there be any encouragement or discouragement of any practice?”

    And really, would discouragement make a difference anyways? We hear every year about how intermarriage and assimilation is a crisis, how it’s destroying the Jewish peoplehood, and yet the intermarriage numbers keep on growing and growing–regardless even of some rabbis’ refusals to officiate at intermarriages. The actions are going to be going on regardless, whether those actions are driving on Saturday or lighting a candle on friday night before you start doing your homework. Judaism just needs to get bigger to accomodate those actions and *make* them a form of Jewishness.

    Which is something we’ve always done–look at Purim. It’s a holiday that probably started out as a pagan spring harvest celebration of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar’s various misadventures, and we went and turned it into a loud party celebrating the suspiciously familiar-souding Mordacai and Esther. It’s what we do.

    Maybe someone needs to come up with a blessing for doing work on shabbat, followed by one where you promise to do it better next week?

  2. Max Moncaster
    December 13, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    I was more trying to ask if personal interpretations should be encouraged at all. Obviously all of those different groups would have various opinions on certain practices and would likely never reach a consensus. But if there was an agreement within the Jewish community that some sort of observance is better than none at all, perhaps there could and should be an across-the-board encouragement to observe Shabbat in some form, however diluted it may be.

  3. Yakov Wolf
    December 14, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    Thanks for your reply, Max. I think that there already *is* an agreement within the Jewish community, even if we limit the definition to just institutional bodies and keep individual practice out of the conversation, that *any* observance is better than no observance (I’m not entirely certain on “humanistic Judaism” organizations, but I think even they would agree). Certainly the major movements, Orthodox through Reform to Renewal, all would sign that petition. I know for a fact that the URJ, though long denigrated as “cafeteria Judaism”, has a program to encourage it. I’d even venture the argument that any group that advocated the opposite (“No observance is better than any observance!”) could hardly be called Jewish.

    In terms of trans-denominational efforts, you might be happy to hear, if you haven’t already, about the Shabbat Across American annual event from the National Jewish Outreach Program [ ].

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