Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why the Shabbos Project is Dividing Us: A Guest Post by Suzanne Oshinsky and Shloimie Ehrenfeld

     On October 24-25, 2014, the creators of the brand new, worldwide “Shabbos Project” and the tens of thousands of its supporters on Facebook and other social media are encouraging all the world’s 14 million or so Jews to celebrate the Sabbath together. Those reading this for the first time are likely struck by the same question that struck us when we first learned of this project: “Hasn’t Shabbat Across America (and other countries) been around for many years already?  What’s new about this project?”  Further adding to our puzzlement was seeing that the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), the creators of Shabbat Across America, apparently helped facilitate the creation of the Shabbos Project.  Why would anyone want to mess with the already-successful Shabbat Across America initiative, which appeals to all Jews who are interested in enjoying Shabbat in whatever way they choose?

     When we looked at the Shabbos Project’s website, however, the difference became clear: While Shabbat Across America has succeeded in encouraging Jews to celebrate Shabbat together in their synagogues or temples or in whatever environment, in whatever way suits their derech (way), the mission of the Shabbos Project is to get all Jews to celebrate in a very specific way – the Orthodox way, the way of the project’s founders.  The detailed instructions on “How to Keep It” involve heating food in crockpots and on hot plates, putting electric lights on timers, substituting tissues for toilet paper, buying liquid toothpaste and liquid lip gloss, and even picture Artscroll books in the section suggesting what to do during the 25 hour period of Shabbos.

     What we find troubling is not that Orthodox rabbis would encourage other Jews to explore what observing Shabbat according to Orthodox Jewish law is really like.  No doubt many people would find keeping a Shabbat the Orthodox way a very rewarding experience.  What is truly disturbing is that this sectarian form of Sabbath observance is being presented as if this is the way the Sabbath always has and continues to be celebrated. As the homepage declares:

     “We will keep it in its entirety, in all of its halachic detail and splendour as it has been kept throughout the ages.”

     “Its rhythm will unite us with each other, with Jews around the world and throughout the ages.”

     One can easily notice, however, that most of the examples of how to keep Shabbat that the Shabbos Project lists on its site have not been kept “throughout the ages.”  Our sages in the Talmud did not use slow cookers to make their cholent or a hot plate to keep their food warm, nor did they use timers for their electric lights.  They did not cut toilet paper or buy tissues, nor did they brush their teeth with liquid toothpaste or apply liquid lip gloss.  They did not serve tea at Shabbat lunch with their percolators, nor did they program their thermostats to maintain heat in their homes.  The “Shabbos lamp” did not even exist 15 or 20 years ago.  The site states, “It’s a nice custom to bring home flowers or chocolates,” but, while it may be nice, calling this practice a “custom,” as if there is some history behind it, seems unfounded. 

     From the food to the home environment to the prayers, examples abound of practices that did not exist in earlier times.   The site discusses the Shabbat prayers and highlights Kabbalat Shabbat; however, Kabbalat Shabbat as a separate prayer service with the Lecha Dodi poem as its centerpiece did not even exist before the 16th century.  Indeed a typical Orthodox Shabbat in 2014 is so different from a typical Shabbat in centuries past that a Talmudic sage would probably find today’s Orthodox Shabbat unrecognizable.  Ironically the Shabbos Project website cites the following Talmudic passage, which only further demonstrates how different their Shabbat experience was from ours:

Rabbi Abahu would sit on a stool of ivory and fan the fire [used to cook for the Sabbath].  Rav Anan would put on a black smock [on Fridays to demonstrate that this was not a day for keeping clean and neat but rather for cooking food for the Sabbath].  Rav Safra would singe the head [of the animal being prepared for the Sabbath meal].  Rava would salt the shibbuta [fish for the Sabbath meal].  Rav Huna would light [oil] lamps [for the Sabbath].  Rav Pappa would twine the wicks [for the lamps].  Rav Chisda would mince the beets.  Rabbah and Rav Yosef would split wood.  Rabbi Zeira would kindle [the fire] (Talmud Shabbos 119a).”
     Our sages never called the Sabbath “Shabbos,” because the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet was not originally pronounced like an “s.”  (It was most likely pronounced like the “th” in the word Sabbath.)  But since the purpose of the Shabbos Project is apparently to get people to observe Shabbat in the style the project’s creators observe it, calling it Shabbos, which is how most Orthodox Jews call it today, rather than Shabbat, as most non-Orthodox Jews call it today, as Shabbat Across America chose to do, is consistent with the project’s apparent mission.

     Unlike Shabbat Across America, this project epitomizes the mindset that there is only one derech in Judaism.  Therefore, there’s only one way to observe the Sabbath.   According to this worldview, Shabbat Across America isn’t good enough, because it gives Jews the impression that they could celebrate the Sabbath in the way that suits each person’s own derech.   Why else would there be any reason for such a “new” initiative?

     We believe that those seeking to unite Jews around the Sabbath should create Shabbat programs that really do unite Jews, rather than tell them “Do it my way, because it’s the only way.”

Suzanne Oshinsky and Shloimie Ehrenfeld are involved in a website to be launched later this fall that will provide resources and support for Jews who are exploring a lifestyle that is different from that of their upbringing.  Shloimie can be reached at freethinkingjew at gmail.


  1. That's the response you came up with? Because they didn't use slow cookers in ancient times? It took two people to come up with that?

    1. That kind of highlights the big lie in this doesn't it, OTD? The deliberate misrepresentations, omissions, stretching of the truth, partial truths, and half truths that kiruv uses to make this sound all warm & fuzzy & grandparent-y is a problem. It's obvious that the entire point of the Shabbos Project is to lure in new recruits. Misrepresenting one's intentions is a big problem.

      It's like serving a free dinner without mentioning the time share condos you're about to push on your guests, or like singing around the camp fire with your new friend Charles Manson at the guitar.

      I'd want to be warned in advance.

      Fairy Godmother

  2. What an amazing article. I specifically loved how you searched so hard for an angle to bash Orthodoxy and a project to bring Jews together for food, conversation and company and came up with something so cute. You go guys!!

    1. I don't think that this article bashes orthodoxy at all, but rather, it points out the shortcomings of a program that looks to stress "only one derech [path] in Judaism" when in fact, there are many. Also, I'm not sure how one can claim that a program that specifically wants people to keep a Shabbat within the parameters of a strict orthodox interpretation of halacha is simply "a project to bring Jews together for food, conversation, and company." You make it sound like a nice non-sectarian Hanukah gathering. In that case, maybe they should be marketing it in a way so as not to alienate the many Jews who don't subscribe to orthodoxy.

    2. The thing is, this is _not_ just an initiative for company, conversations and good food! It is paraded that way and I'm sure that's why a lot of non-orthodox people sign up. But this is not the goal. The goal is not to unite Jews, rather, to get these Jews to commit to a _full_ shabbat according to very specific orthodox rules (if you look well enough on that website you'll see it).

      And for sure, if you participate and live in a kiruv prone area, you'll have tons of follow up shabbat and holiday invites, events, coffee meetings and classes..............

      If this was just an honest initiative to connect, I would have participated, but I'm not going to, because at least in America, it's yet another sneaky kiruv event....

  3. See my comments on the post below.

    I can't comment on how The Shabbat Project is turning out in other cities, but in Toronto:

    1. It's HUGE - the promotion is way beyond anything I've seen before.
    2. It's attracted non-Orthodox volunteers and organizations.

    Some of the original Project Inspire material was a bit problematic. I don't think, for example, that accepting a dinner invite should mean that someone is bombarded afterward. What I'm seeing, though, is the local organization NOT pushing the worst of the Project Inspire materials, and non-Orthodox groups having their own programs running as their way to participate in The Shabbat Project idea.

  4. Hi Law Mom, I'm really glad to hear that non-orthodox volunteers and organizations are running their own programs and are not promoting the shabbos project format, that requires adherence to an orthodox version of shabbat. In practice, I think it will be very similar to the NJOP, shabbat across america, format, and which has been embraced by non-orthodox movements as well. I am still concerned that the official Shabbos Project website is skewed toward orthodox practice, and I have not seen material that suggests an alternative format is being promoted anywhere else. If you do have links to this material, we would greatly appreciate your sharing those with us.

  5. If an Orthodox organization came out in favour of smoking cessation would you write a piece encourage people to take up the habit?
    For crying out loud, no one thinks that the Sages of the Talmud had a slow cooker or that they pre-tore their toilet paper. However they didn't initiate cooking on Shabbos, nor did they tear off their leaves (or whatever they used) on Shabbos because of the exact same principles we use.
    Saying that people can do whatever they want on Saturday and call it their Shabbos experience is like those folks who go out on nature retreats on Rosh HaShanah. It's a nice thing but it ain't Judaism. Shabbos is about restraining oneself from productive labour as defined for the last few millenia in the Talmud. You want to introduce something new? Great, it's a free country but don't call it Shabbos.

    1. The point is they are using the Shabbos Project to lure in new recruits from other denominations of Judaism, or who are less fanatically Orthodox, into their particular ultra Orthodox sect without telling the unsuspecting victims that is their goal. It isn't just about experiencing a shabbos. It's using that shabbos to groom recruits for the next step which might be a shabbathon, or a "free" trip to Israel, or Brats & Beer, or Sushi with the rabbi's wife - and on & on. It's using the Shabbos Project to get their hooks into people without telling them what these friendly people are up to. The Shabbos Project is a disingenuous lie.

      Fairy Godmother

  6. Suzanne - here are a few links from Toronto:

    1. Associated Hebrew Schools (a large community Jewish day school):

    The resources list includes Conservative and Reform shuls and sources.

    2. TanenbaumCHAT (the community Jewish high school):

    *When I say "community" schools, I mean that both Associated and CHAT have a mandate to serve the entire Jewish community, and welcome any Jewish student regardless of denominational background.

    3. Beth Tikvah synagogue: - on page 3, they talk about a special kiddush for the Shabbat Project. This is a Conservative synagogue.

  7. You took the Gemara (Shabbat 119a) out of context. The rabbis there are described as doing lowly acts, given their status, to honor Shabbat in its preparation -- not during Shabbat. Suggesting that they violated Shabbat is dishonest.

  8. The Shabbos Lamp was an item that depressed me deeply. As a Jew living in a community which is MO right wing it is not a rare object in our community. I think the design says a lot about us.


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