Tag Archives: Shabbat

Shabbat’s Gray Area

by Rebecca Borison

Israeli President Shimon Peres recently announced that he has cancelled his trip to London for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Why? When he discovered that the ceremony would be taking place on a Friday night, Peres, unable to find a hotel within walking distance of the Olympic grounds, decided to cancel the trip.

For most of the Shabbat-observant—those of us whose daily work doesn’t have an imminent impact on world matters—taking a break from technology for 25 hours is more of a personal challenge than a matter of political import. But what about those for whom it is? What if resting on Shabbat impacts a country or even the world? What happens when a Shabbat-observer enters into the realm of politics?

Judaism has a principle called pikuach nefesh, which means that in life-threatening situations, Jewish law can be somewhat altered. Many translate this into allowing doctors to work on Shabbat, for example. Their ability to save a life trumps the laws of Shabbat and the necessity to rest. The principle becomes a little murkier when applied to other realms of life, such as political issues, which may not be seen as equally life-threatening on an individual basis.

Can a politician employ pikuach nefesh to enable him to work on shabbat?

In his recent book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, Senator Joe Lieberman discusses the conflicts that arise as an observant Jew in Congress. In 1988, when Lieberman was nominated for Senate, he decided to pre-tape his acceptance speech rather than travel to the ceremony on Shabbat. In 2010, however, Lieberman decided to answer the phone on Shabbat in order to convince Senator Lindsey Graham not to withdraw his support for the American Energy Act.

For Lieberman, that was a case where he had to prioritize global climate change over the laws of Shabbat. Lieberman writes, “I understand that the privileges I’ve been given to be in public office also involve responsibilities that also sometimes conflict with Shabbat, so I’ve got to do the best I can to reconcile those conflicts.” In order to make the best decisions, Lieberman consults with Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel congregation on the guidelines he should keep in mind. One of the guidelines is a “hierarchy of ways” to get to Capitol Hill on Shabbat depending on the level of urgency.

Following in Lieberman’s footsteps, Jack Lew has returned Shabbat to the forefront of America’s political sphere. As the White House Chief of Staff, Lew is forced to balance the Jewish six-day work week with the White House seven-day work week.

JTA notes one particular intersection of the two worlds. Some years ago, Lew returned home from synagogue on Shabbat to hear his phone ringing. As he always did, he waited to hear the call on the answering machine to determine if it was urgent enough to pick up. It was someone from the White House calling to tell Lew to ignore a previous message from Bill Clinton. Clinton had been overseas and forgot that it was still Shabbat in Washington. The message was not urgent.

The fact that President Clinton now has Shabbat on his radar is a success in and of itself. Because Lew has made Shabbat a priority, the White House respects his decision and works with him to create the best possible balance. By bringing Jewish values into the public eye, Lew is epitomizing the value of Kiddush Hashem.

In Peres’s case, we can probably agree that going to the Olympics can in no way be considered a life-threatening situation. It probably falls pretty low on the hierarchy. While the Olympics are a big deal, Peres decided to choose Shabbat, making an even bigger statement. Peres upholding the importance of Shabbat is not only good PR for the Jews, but also a good lesson to the world about where we place our priorities. Yes, it would be great to go to the Olympics opening ceremony, but not at the cost of Jewish principles.

As Rabbi Ethan Tucker wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, “The Torah intends for Jews–especially observant ones–to be visible, engaged in society and capable of taking on responsibility for others as opposed to just looking out for their parochial interests.” When that value conflicts with our other Torah obligations, we are forced into a gray area. But that should never stop us from being visible and engaged. It’s all about living in the gray.


The Three-Hour Diet

by Rebecca Borison

Thanksgiving never really manages to excite me. Yes, it’s nice to be with family, but the whole feast aspect just isn’t that novel. I have that at least twice a week. It’s called Shabbat.

Judaism is deeply rooted in its attachment to the culinary arts. We like to eat. A lot.  While many Americans enjoy a piece of chicken and some broccoli for their Friday dinner, we’re working our way through challah, chicken soup, brisket, mashed potatoes, squash and brownies.

It’s no secret that food is an important aspect of our religion and culture. And sometimes this runs the risk of bolstering the “overeating epidemic.” It’s not easy to maintain healthy portions at the Shabbat table.

And yet Judaism still provides some opportunity for healthy eating. Unfortunately, it has yet to be scientifically proven that kosher food is better for you. Though some people, in the search for a path to healthy eating, choose kosher foods because they seem healthier, there’s no evidence to support the belief.

What keeping kosher does offer is the “three-hour diet.” In addition to the traditional separation of dairy and meat products, there are various customs regulating how long one should wait in between meat and milk. Some say that simply leaving the table is enough; others say that you should wait six hours after eating meat before you can eat dairy products. Many wait three hours, but you could easily adjust the title of the diet to the “six-hour diet” or even the “one-hour diet.” (Though I’m not sure an hour of no snacking would have much of an impact.)

What difference does it make if you can’t eat dairy for three hours after you eat meat products? You don’t snack. Sure, there are some flaws to this diet: not all snacks are dairy, and if you’re a vegetarian, this won’t work at all. But, if you do eat chicken or meat for lunch, and you abide by the traditional kashrut laws, that means you won’t be able to eat ice cream for three hours.

I know my biggest struggle with dieting is willpower. If I see a scrumptious-looking piece of cake in front of me, it’s just so hard to say no. But if it’s not up to me, if religious mandate dictates that I refrain, then I just can’t have the piece of cake. It’s a no-brainer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a panacea. If anything, it serves to balance out the ubiquity of food in Judaism. So if I eat a mind-boggling amount of food at Shabbat lunch, the next three hours are a no-snack zone, and I can give my body a little bit of rest from the eating. And if I do reach for the pareve jelly beans, they’re fat-free, so it’s no big deal, right?

The Plight of the Three-Day Holiday

by Rebecca Borison

The good news is that a long holiday gives us an excuse to eat cheesecake for three days.

This past Friday, I turned off my iPhone at approximately 7 pm and prepared myself for three days of being disconnected. Shavuot happened to fall on Sunday and Monday, which meant that Shabbat led directly into the holiday, allowing no time to catch up on missed emails on Saturday night.

While I am used to unplugging for one day a week, the three-day holiday always poses a greater challenge: It’s a lot harder to deal with three days of unplugging than one. But ultimately, I found the three days to be more beneficial than bothersome. I was able to catch up with high school friends, play basketball with my younger brother, go to synagogue, and even read some George Eliot. Granted, I don’t think I’d be able to do it every week, but once in a while, it’s actually nice to disconnect for three days.

For observant or traditional Jews, 25 hours a week of unplugging is commonplace. Every Friday at sundown, iPhones are turned off and laptops are shut down. In today’s world of constant connectivity and instant feedback, those 25 hours can be extremely challenging. Add on two more days of Shavuot, and you’re practically salivating at the thought of checking your email.

The three-day holiday always seems to return as a shock. Outside of Israel, observant Jews keep two days of Shavuot, and when it falls out on a Sunday and Monday, that means three full days of synagogue, lots of food and no technology.

For many, even one day of Sabbath can seem impossible. In a 2010 New York Times article by Austin Considine, Jill Soloway, a television producer, said that a  day without her iPhone was “next to excruciating.” Not being able to connect to the modern world leaves one feeling anxious and antsy.

In that same article, Considine writes about an experiment by Reboot, a nonprofit think tank of Jewish professionals. Reboot had decided to promote a National Day of Unplugging.  Some of the day’s instructions were to “avoid technology,” “find silence” and “drink wine.” According to Reboot, unplugging fulfills a major need, whether or not you’re Jewish.  While it may be difficult to turn off the iPhone, it can also be extremely beneficial.  In today’s fast-paced society, it is crucial that we step back and reflect.

Growing up, my family always ate dinner together, seven days a week. But once we were old enough to get our own cell phones, the weekday dinners shifted entirely. Yes, we all sat at the same table and ate the same food, but we were all texting our friends at the same time. It only got worse with the transition to smart phones. My parents tried to enforce no-cell-phone rules, but we always managed to hide our cell phones in our pockets or under the table.

Friday night dinners, on the other hand, were entirely different. It was no longer just my parents enforcing the no cell phone rule, it was Shabbat. All of a sudden, my siblings and I were actually engaging in real-life conversation.

Six days a week, we are constantly in touch with the modern, digital world. Even for those who don’t intend on fully observing the Sabbath, unplugging for one day a week can serve as a great way to relax and promote family time.

But what happens when it turns into three days of your week? Former religion reporter for The New York Times Ari L. Goldman used to call the stretch “the triple whammy.” “As Sabbath observers,” he writes, “we already know what it is to unplug for a day. Two days is unusual, but three is almost imaginable.”

As the years passed, however, Goldman began to actually look forward to the three-day holiday. He sees the need to disconnect from  technology as a blessing. It allows him to catch up on reading and spend valuable time with his family.

Maybe three days of unplugging is a bit much for the average Internet frequenter. I happen to agree with Goldman. I can appreciate the three-day holiday as an additional excuse to relax and spend time with friends and family.

During the week, I find myself feeling guilty for not being productive and lazing around. When I’m forced to relax, however, the guilt melts away. Why wouldn’t I want two more days of that?

Three days without an iPhone forces you to be creative. Maybe you take out a board game or a puzzle; maybe you grab a novel. Or maybe you go for a walk with your mom. The possibilities are endless. And let’s be honest, how likely are we to actually think outside the box when the Internet is at our fingertips?

Questioning the Merit of Faith

By Steven Philp

Friday evening, nearly 3,000 people packed themselves in to the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada to witness former-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens grapple with the merits of religion. The event was part of the Munk Debate series, organized by the Aurea Foundation, for which the prompt was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” Blair–a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church – was tasked with defending the necessity of faith communities, while Hitchens–author of the best-seller God is Not Great–argued that religion is the source of incalculable misery throughout human history. During the 90-minute debate, Hitchens seemed to hold sway over the crowd although a pre-debate poll showed 57% of the audience already agreed with his position, compared to the 22% who were sympathetic with Blair. The remaining participants were undecided.

As might be expected from such vocal personalities, both men conceded little to their opponent. Hitchens characterized religion as a dangerous anachronism, comparing G-d to “a kind of divine North Korea.” He equated omniscience to malevolence, arguing, “Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us subjects in a cruel experiment.” Blair held the defensive through most of the debate, returning to the theme that throughout history people of faith have been engaged in acts for the betterment of humankind. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” Blair argued, pointing out that such generalizations ignore the multifaceted nature of faith communities. Yet in the end, he failed to qualify religion as more than “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives.”

That this debate occurred Friday evening is apropos of a similar discussion within the Jewish community, as each Shabbat we are asked to make a conscious decision about what it means to be a Jew. On one hand, Judaism is a matter of faith affirmed by the commandments of shamor v’zachor, to keep and remember, the Sabbath. On the other, it is a cultural heritage that extends beyond the synagogue–if it includes it at all. As Jews we ask ourselves if Judaism as religion is “a force for good” in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large.

Unfortunately, elements of faith have been used through our history for oppression; consequently, it may not be surprising that traditionally subjugated minorities–women and the LGBT community, for example–have found greater degrees of mobility within those denominations of Judaism that have moved further away from strict observance. At the same time, there have been countless Jews who have contributed to the betterment of our communities – looking at the Forward 50 published earlier this year, we can see contemporary examples of fellow Jews who have taken leadership on a variety of issues. Yet contrary to Blair’s characterization of do-gooders their individual relationship to Judaism is not necessarily one of faith, even as this heritage may have inspired them toward a certain moral imperative. In this way, the religious element may not be necessary for the performing of good deeds. At the same time, there are many on the list that have an intimate relationship with Judaism as a faith practice. For them, it’s an inextricable part of their Jewish identity.

Then is it possible to separate Judaism as faith from Judaism as cultural heritage? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Chadash, a growing Humanistic community north of Chicago proper. He explained that the purpose of Humanistic Judaism is to honor Jewish culture in a way that is human-centered; it is a space for the secular Jew to celebrate his or her heritage, while “saying what they believe, and believing what they say.” In some cases, that may mean removing G-d from the equation. On the other hand, as a Jew-by-choice my approach to Judaism is one defined almost exclusively by faith; unlike Rabbi Chalom, I lack the cultural heritage of a born-Jew. Yet through our conversation, it was evident that we shared one key belief: Judaism can be “a force for good in the world.” It is true that our tradition – inherited or chosen–has been used to maintain systems of oppression. Yet it has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of inspiration for the betterment of mankind, for both secular and observant Jews alike.

Saving the World Through Rest

By Daniel Kieval

Shabbat, the seventh day, the day of rest, is a strange concept to so many today. The long lists of prohibited actions seem to run counter to popular notions of individual choice and freedom, and the idea of temporarily disengaging from the continual “status updates” of society is viewed with a mix of astonishment and terror.

We live in a world of activity. Industrialized humans spend just about all of their time either producing something or consuming something, whether it be products, information, or energy. Time and space are voids to be filled, rather than dimensions to inhabit. It would not be unreasonable to change our name from “human beings” to “human doings.” Meanwhile, all of this “doing” is taking its toll—on our bodies, on our societies, and on our planet.

The truth is, we produce and consume far more than we need to be happy, and much of our perceived freedom is illusory; how many of us can admit to times that we feel like “slaves” to our email, or our cell phones, or our work schedules? Shabbat, with its seemingly restrictive laws, not only does not enslave us but actually opens the door to a deep freedom from our day to day lives. It is a freedom that we often don’t even know we are missing until we discover it: the freedom to stop, to rest, to be.

Millennia after the invention of Shabbat, others have started to recognize humanity’s deep need to simply exist. The Slow Food movement has expanded into an all-encompassing “Slow Movement,” including the playful but genuine “International Institute of Not Doing Much,” that fights against the ever-increasing pace of modern life. Sustainable farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka wrote that “We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a ‘movement’ not to bring anything about.”

The Torah, in fact, contains a similar sentiment. Every seventh year is a “sabbatical year”: the Israelites are prohibited from plowing, planting, and harvesting their fields in order to let the land rest. The consequences of violating this commandment are instructive:  “And you will I scatter among the nations… and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate… As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest” (Lev 26:33-35). If the Israelites do not treat the land with respect they will be driven off of it, and it will take its rest by force. It is a warning that we today ignore at our peril: the Earth takes 18 months to regenerate the resources that humans currently use in a year, and that ratio is projected to worsen in the coming decades.

Many of our most serious problems could be mitigated if people simply slowed down or even, every so often, did nothing at all. Fast food—because people don’t have the time to eat, let alone cook, a leisurely sit-down meal—is causing a global health catastrophe in the form of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, costing untold billions of dollars every year. Accidents caused by texting while driving and even texting while walking have become a serious public safety issue as our gadgets demand our attention with ever more immediacy. Gratuitous industrial farming practices are destroying a precious American resource—topsoil—and contributing to large scale ecological degradation in order to produce more food than we need, leaving a legacy of exhausted farmland that has not known a sabbatical in generations.

Of course we could not survive by doing nothing all the time—Shabbat is only one day in seven, after all, and the same breath that gave it to us also commanded a full week of work in between. But we can survive, and thrive, by doing a little bit less all the time. Even more than the details of how we spend our Saturdays, Shabbat is about acquiring a certain consciousness, an appreciation of Slow, that alters the way we experience the world. It gives us the ability to reflect on how we live the rest of the week, what we do and do not allow to govern our lives, and, most important, what all of our hard work is really for.

Weekly Parsha: Pinchas’ Zealotry and 600,000 Israelites

Last week’s Torah parsha was Pinchas. (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

Continuing from last week’s parsha, Balak, Pinchas begins with the conclusion of the story of the plague of Baal-peor (Numbers 25). Balak ends with the men of Israel falling prey to their lustful appetites for non-Isralite women.

They fornicate with them, marry them, and needless to say, Hashem is furious! He tells Moses to have the leaders impaled publicly, which leads to this Hollywood-esque finale (Numbers 25:6-9):

Just as Moses finishes telling Hashem’s orders to Israel’s officials, the Israelite Zimri son of Salu brings his Midianite woman, Cozbi daughter of Zur, to a chamber in view of Moses and everyone else around. They proceed to copulate in what has to be one of the most disgustingly public, brazen, and defiant sexual acts in human history. We can imagine Moses and those around him looking on, aghast.

But when Pinchas sees what is happening, he grabs a spear and stabs both Zimri and Cozbi in a single lunge. Continue reading