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).”
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:
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.”