Shabbat Around the World

I’ve experienced Shabbat in some very interesting places. One of the most memorable Shabbat lunches I can recall was in the home of a Chabad rabbi and his family in Kharkov, Ukraine. This was in August 2005 when I led a small Hillel/JDC mission of University of Michigan students to the Former Soviet Union.The food at that lunch was delicious and the new plates of food seemed to continuously appear throughout the afternoon. As dessert was being served we sang Shabbat zemirot (festive songs) together. The students recognized the traditional songs and began harmonizing. The rabbi asked me to say a few words of Torah and I spoke about the pintele yid – that spark of Judaism that can be found throughout the globe. While the food might be different and some of the customs are unique to that community, the spark is there. How wonderful it is, I explained, for us Americans to travel to the Former Soviet Union in the 21st century and enjoy a warm, spiritual Shabbat, singing the Hebrew songs that are so familiar to us. 

In Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:3), the Torah says, לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת “Do not light a fire in all your dwellings on Shabbat”. Why is it necessary for the Torah to state settlements in the plural? Shouldn’t it be enough to say that we are forbidden from kindling fire on Shabbat? Why is it necessary to have the designation “throughout your settlements?” After all, the Torah doesn’t add words or letters unnecessarily.

The medieval commentator Abravanel interprets this to mean that the intent of the clause is to apply the prohibition universally; meaning wherever Jews reside. The idea is to demonstrate that the same rule applies regardless of where in the world we’re spending Shabbat. This biblical prohibition stated in this way should remind us that our world is much smaller than we sometimes think. We can observe and celebrate in any community throughout the world and it will feel like Shabbat to us.

We might observe new customs and culinary dishes, but Shabbat is Shabbat. It is a unifying force in Judaism. Shabbat is a standard. We light the Shabbat candles, we recite the kiddush and the motzi, we enjoy delicious meals together, and we conclude with havdallah.

Last month I returned to Ukraine seven-and-a-half years since that first visit. Seated across from me at my table at a kosher restaurant in Kiev was an Israeli man who told me I looked familiar. I laughed and referenced a song I learned as a child, “Wherever You Go There’s Always Someone Jewish.” He laughed and told me that he was serious; he was positive he had met me before. Sure enough, Amir Ben Zvi and his wife Sharon had also been guests at that Chabad rabbi’s home for Shabbat lunch back in 2005. Amir was about to begin his new job for the JDC in Ukraine and was also invited to the Chabad rabbi’s home for lunch. Amir and I reminisced about how enjoyable that experience was and shared an immediate friendship. No matter where we find ourselves in the world, Shabbat is Shabbat.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Technology vs. Shabbat: Can We Accommodate Our Electronics Dependency On the Day of Rest?

E-books became the dominant format for adult fiction in 2011 surpassing hardcover books and paperbacks according to the BookStats annual survey. We are increasingly choosing to read our novels, magazine, newspapers and even children’s books on e-readers and tablets. But is it permissible to do this on the one day of the week that Judaism commands us to unplug?

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the former rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, recently published a *teshuva (religious response) regarding the use of electrical and electronic devices on the Shabbat.

In the teshuva, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), Nevins ultimately ruled that while the operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden according to the laws of Shabbat, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs melacha (the category of forbidden activity on Shabbat) with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is forbidden in the Torah. Nevins answered some questions about his research and how he arrived at his legal decision:


What made you decide to take up this issue now?

I’ve been thinking about electricity and Shabbat for decades actually; since I really began observing Shabbat. I started researching the halachic [Jewish legal] issues involved and I found that there may have been a consensus in the Orthodox world that no electricity was allowed and yet there was no sense about why. It was worth clarifying what the considerations were. In recent years, I’ve come to feel that technology has become integrated in a rapidly accelerating fashion in our personal lives and the lack of clarity about the halachic issues were creating a bit of chaos in people’s understanding of what the laws of Shabbat have to say about electronics, and moreover, what the culture of Shabbat should be.

How do the issues of electronics use on Shabbat affect you personally?

I’m a parent of three teenagers and creating policies for our family that protect the special atmosphere of Shabbat so that we’d have one day to look at each other in the eyes and not constantly be looking down at glowing screens. That was part of the motivation, which I think is shared by many families that are trying to preserve some element of intentional family time which is not distracted by all the other devices that constantly call our thoughts away.

When you started writing this teshuva, which electronic devices did you have in mind?

Certainly computers and cell phones were significant; those are probably the most important ones I was thinking about. The iPad wasn’t out yet. I did begin thinking about the Amazon Kindle fairly early in the process, but I had not yet focused on one specific brand. I tried to focus less on the brand names than on the technology.

What was your intended outcome in writing this? Were you trying to make Shabbat easier for people?

I will say that I’m not looking for stringencies in life. But I do look for integrities and interpretations of practice. So, if my study had led me to the conclusion that there is no issue with use of an e-reader, then I would have been comfortable coming to that conclusion. But, as I say in the paper, I was actually in a way almost looking for such a thing because I’m concerned that, increasingly, digital media may be the only way to access written content. As I said in a CJLS meeting, reading is a significant part of the culture of Shabbat, so if we got to the point where the only way to read new content was by some sort of electronic or digital medium then we would really lose something with Shabbat. So I’m concerned about that and I described these issues a few years ago in an article in The Atlantic titled “People of the E-book.”

So, what happens in the future if the only way to read a book really is electronically?

If the only way to read a book on Shabbat is on the Kindle, then I would say we need to come up with ways for the Kindle to be operated without downloading new content or creating permanent records. If there’s a will there’s a way technologically, not just halachically.

Where there’s a halachic will there’s a halachic way?

I’m not so comfortable with that statement. Where there’s a halachic will, then there’s also a halachic way. If you’re committed to the integrity of religious practice then at some point the answer’s going to be “no.”

Would your teshuva be categorized as meta-halachic since you’re not halachically opposed to electricity on Shabbat? You’re prescribing a break from the workweek, so how is this teshuva different from the various ‘un-plugged’ campaigns and Sabbath Manifesto?

Well, I’ve spent dozens of pages working on halachic sources and making conclusions for halachic reasons. Meta-halacha implies there’s something outside of the halacha; an external body, but that’s the opposite of my belief.

Describe the difference between an electric sink or automatic door and using an Amazon Kindle or an iPad on Shabbat.

Electronic devices are embedded everywhere, making it almost impossible to avoid electronic interaction. That’s the core of my paper. The difference that I see between those two is that motion detectors that open doors and turn off taps and lights do not leave any permanent record. I understand melacha to be about transforming material. A Kindle, which downloads information from the Internet and also tracks usage so that it knows where a reader is and where they left off, seems to be to be more akin to writing and therefore involves a transformation of material of reality. For that reason, I think use of a Kindle and other electronics as being prohibited under the category of kotev, of writing.

Radio, television, and computers have been around for a while. Why now, with the proliferation of Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers are you bringing this up?

Well, already 60 years ago Rabbi Arthur Neulander began talking about the use of electronics and I quote him in the paper and basically agree with him. He discussed TV and radio, not computers at that time in the 1950s. I basically think that turning on a television and turning on a radio do not involve writing and therefore are not prohibited as forms of melacha. However, I question whether they are appropriate to the atmosphere of Shabbat, which we call sh’vut, in terms of resting. Computers I believe do involve downloading content, even without the user being aware of it. Every time you browse to a new web page you’re downloading information, you’re sending cookies, and you’re doing all sorts of processes which you’re not thinking about. Part of Shabbat is getting people to think more about the impact of their behavior. On Shabbat, as I say in the paper, we try to emphasize personal interaction. Our digital technology isolates us from the people around us. And therefore it defeats part of the purpose of Shabbat.

What about some exceptions to the rule?

Let’s say someone is disabled and the only way of reading is through a Kindle that enlarges type, then you might say that their human dignity would supersede the general level to use electronics.

Any thoughts on what’s become known as the “Half-Shabbos” in the Orthodox community, when observant teenagers will text their friends on Shabbat, but otherwise observe the laws?

I address this in the footnotes. The “Half-Shabbos” phenomenon is testimony to the great allure of digital media, but I feel that this makes us realize that it’s distracting. And I would say to teens, davka [precisely] don’t text on Shabbat. Talk to people. Make eye contact.


What about for Jews who are living in isolation who are lonely on Shabbat?

Okay, you’re in Alaska, you’re on an army base, and you’re the only Jew on the base… I can understand the desire to interact with others. But still, texting involves writing so therefore I think it’s forbidden.

What about competing values? For example, a Jewish person in an area with no community wants to watch a live stream of Shabbat services or wants to study Torah with a friend on Skype during Shabbat afternoon.

I also talk about these issues in the paper. Certainly the motivation to participate in a community is very strong, and should be respected. If there’s a way to participate without violating the prohibition on writing, then I would be sympathetic to it. But, it’s a bit of a slippery slope. Once you’re using your computer and using your TV, then you might use it for other things as well.

Aren’t these gadgets just a way of life and Jewish law has to adapt?

Yes, that’s true, but we need vacations from routines now and then and Shabbat is about challenging us to change our routine one day a week and experience life a bit differently.

How does one define “Shomer Shabbat” [Sabbath observant] today?

A person trying to be “Shomer Shabbat” is committed to differentiating Shabbat from the workweek by abstaining from certain activities and engaging in other activities that are specific to Shabbat. As I say in the paper, we desist from melacha and some other activities which detract from the tranquility of the day. We engage in activities like eating, sleeping, praying and studying. That makes the day sort of an image of an ideal world; the experience of an ideal world.

Jewish law evolves and the halachic system progresses, so doesn’t this teshuva keep the system from adapting to technological innovation?

I think it’s the opposite. I think it engages with the reality of digital culture – its attraction, its usefulness, and its negative consequences. This paper tries to take the feel of Shabbat and apply it to the digital age that we’re living in. For good and for bad.

How will you help young people access your teshuva and apply your prescriptions to their technology-dominated lives?

I’m working on a curriculum for Ramah camps, Schechter day schools and USY [Conservative movement’s youth agency]. You don’t do something like this without the intention of teaching it to people who aren’t going to read a 60-page paper.

Finally, would it be ironic if someone read your teshuva on their iPad on Shabbat afternoon?

Yes (laughs). I’ve told people not to read my paper on the Kindle because that would be ironic. I don’t believe that we’ve come to the final chapter in this. In the paper I explained that as technology continues to evolve, we’ll gain new insights. It may be that in the future there may be a way to use e-readers on Shabbat without violating the concerns I raise in this paper, and I would like that.

*The complete teshuva can be accessed at http://jewi.sh/nevins

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jack Lew, Obama’s New Chief of Staff is Shomer Shabbat

Will President Barack Obama’s new Chief of Staff answer the President’s phone call on Shabbat? It would appear that the answer to that question will be yes (even though he’s Shomer Shabbos).

Obama’s pick to succeed William Daley as his Chief of Staff is Jack Lew. Lew is currently a senior administration official who has served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Jack Lew is a practicing Orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. He has been an active member of both Congregation Beth Sholom of Potomac, Maryland and the Riverdale Jewish Center the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) in New York.

Jack Lew, a Sabbath Observant Jew, will become Obama’s third Chief of Staff
While serving as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bill Clinton administration, Lew received a phone call from the president. He decided to take it and later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

President Obama’s first Chief of Staff was Rahm Emanuel who now serves as Mayor of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel considers himself to be a Conservative Jew and is not Shomer Shabbat — Sabbath observant. (Emanuel attends both the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Synagogue and the Conservative-affiliated Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.) That makes Jack Lew the first Sabbath observant holder of the Chief of Staff office (Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein was an observant Jew but was not Shomer Shabbat).

The transition from Daley to Lew is set to take place at the end of this month.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Celebrity Shabbat Shalom Greetings

Sending out a weekly e-mail newsletter to friends has become a passion for Lisa Mark Lis.

Lis, a suburban Detroit-based community activist and philanthropist, in her Friday morning e-mail posts to friends and family not only wishes her readers a “Shabbat Shalom,” but she often has a celebrity extend their wishes, too.

Lisa Mark Lis videos U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gary Peters.

Lis has videotaped such notable performers as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka and David Broza sending Shabbat best. Politicians as far up as President Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, have offered “Shabbat Shalom” wishes on camera for Lis, as have U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Other celebs who have participated include “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger and actor Wallace Shawn, who perhaps is best known for his role in “The Princess Bride.”

Lis isn’t shy about asking for a quick “Shabbat Shalom” greeting when running into a celebrity. When she told Marvin Hamlisch about some of the famous people who had recorded messages, the composer raised a glass of champagne to Lis’ camera phone and said, “I’m not Paul Simon and I’m not James Taylor. I’m Marvin Hamlisch and yes, I know how to say ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ “

She’s been sending her weekly greeting every Friday for nearly 2 1/2 years. She isn’t sure how many people are on her distribution list, but it includes friends and family from around the world, including a large contingent in Israel (her husband, Hannan, is a native Israeli).

Lis says she sends out the messages to wish as many people as possible a good weekend and to stay in touch with her connections.

“I do it to say ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ and then anything else I add is my soapbox,” Lis said. “I started to include the video messages of famous people saying ‘Shabbat Shalom’ as a fun addition to the e-mails. It makes people smile. Now people have come to expect them.”

Political views are included in some of her weekly messages. So are reminders to attend local fundraising events for causes she supports. A paragraph encouraging her readers to remember Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during his captivity was a staple of each week’s e-mail message until his release last month. Every message includes wishes of “Happy Birthday” and “Mazel Tov” to her friends and family celebrating milestones in the upcoming week.

Lis plans to continue finding the chutzpah to ask celebs and politicians to utter those two Hebrew words for her camera phone. After all, it’s not every Friday that an e-mail arrives with a video of the leader of the free world wishing you a “Shabbat Shalom.”

President Barack Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” Greeting

David Hasselhoff’s “Shabbat Shalom” Greeting

Cross-posted to JTA.org

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jennifer Aniston Says Shabbat Shalom

In what is certainly a first, a big name celebrity says “Shabbat Shalom” in a movie.

“Horrible Bosses” starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, and Donald Sutherland has a scene in which Jennifer Aniston exclaims, “Shabbat Shalom!” Here’s a clip:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Using Our Brain to Drive on Shabbat

Here is my recent post on the “Jewish Techs” blog at the Jewish Week:

Previously on the “Jewish Techs” blog, I discussed the technical halachic (Jewish legal) minutae surrounding the permissability of using the Amigo Shabbat Scooter from the Israeli-based Zomet Institute. The Shabbat Scooter is made by Michigan-based Amigo, founded by Allan Thieme, which began making the Jewish Sabbath-approved scooters six years ago.

But now there’s something even more impressive on the horizon that will further push Jewish legal scholars to determine if its use is acceptable for the Sabbath.

Engineers and futurists are now discussing a sitting vehicle which is driven solely with brain activity. Yes, you read that correctly: brain activity. But can it be used on Shabbat when observant Jews refrain from electricity and traditional forms of transportation.

The Jerusalem Post reports, “This intriguing thought was discussed on Thursday by Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler, an electrooptics engineer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, who was one of the speakers at Thursday’s 18th Torah and Science Conference of the Jerusalem College of Technology, Yeshiva University in Israel and BIU… Fixler showed a recently released clip of a ‘proof of concept’ vehicle that has a person inside who merely thinks of how to maneuver it. The vehicle drives itself safely, turning corners, slowing down and giving more gas. While this is ‘not something one should do at home,’ the Autonomos company successfully tested the proof-of-concept car a few months ago, said the BIU engineer.”

So how does this contraption work? A special cap, worn by the operator, contains 16 sensors and trains the car’s computer by examining the human brain’s electromagnetic signals. The operator of the vehicle simply points to the left and the right, which teaches his movements to the computer without speaking. Once the vehicle is trained, it can maneuver itself.

“Fixler said that the issue of the brain thinking and action – which could or could not be approved by rabbis as permissible Shabbat activity – could raise halachic arguments. Even though the person does not take any physical action to manipulate and move the car, just thinking about it could be forbidden on Shabbat… Fixler noted that even without seeing something work such as a remote control it could be argued that the tool was under the user’s control without actually being observed as doing something; it is much more complicated if only the brain is in control.”

But is merely thinking about something an act that could be deemed a violation of the Sabbath laws in Judaism? There are thirty-nine categories of actions that are forbidden on Shabbat, but one has to actually engage in them to be culpable. It is forbidden for a Jewish farmer to plow his field on Saturday afternoon, but it is fine if he just thinks about plowing his field. The question of course is what happens if his thinking about plowing actually instructs his plow to do the work.

There are certainly those who would argue that riding in any moving vehicle on the Sabbath is a violation of Jewish law. However, in the case of the Amigo scooter or this futuristic contraption controlled by thinking the user is most likely going to be a disabled individual. In those cases, most authorities would likely issue a heter (religious exeption to the rule) so that individual could travel to the synagogue to be with the community on the Sabbath.

There are some very impressive scientific and technological inventions on the way that will further cause religious debate. These are innovations that our forebearers could have never predicted generations ago. It will be interesting to see how these rulings take shape and to what extent the halachic decisors try to fully understand the technological advancements and their implications for our community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Daily Show Raises the Eruv

There are certain obscure laws in Judaism that one doesn’t expect to be explained and debated on Comedy Central. Certainly the “legal fiction” known as an eruv is one of these.

According to Jewish law, a Jewish person is forbidden from carrying (or even pushing a baby stroller) from one domain to another on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays. There are actually several types of eruvin (plural) that allow Jewish people to circumnavigate what is forbidden on Shabbat, including the eruv tavshilin that allows us to cook meals for Shabbat on Jewish festivals.

On last night’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, correspondent Wyatt Cenac took up the ongoing debate in Westhampton Beach, Long Island as to whether to allow for an eruv (thin wire attached to existing electrical poles that gives the appearance that all the homes are within the same domain for carrying on Shabbat). The secular Jews of this town object to the erection of an eruv as they believe it will turn their town over to an Orthodox Jewish majority as has happened in other locales.

The segment is humorous, but also tainted with the type of infighting and vitriol that Samuel Freedman wrote about in his book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry .

Here is the video:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Rabbi Jason Miller
The Thin Jew Line (Eruv)
www.thedailyshow.com

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

What to Wear

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I attended a Purim party. I had no idea what to wear. In past years I was able to figure out what to wear based on the theme. Black tie? Got it covered. Western attire? No problem (jeans, flannel and cowboy hat). 70’s Disco attire? That’s easy (and fun!).

This year, however, the invitation said “Gem Tones.” Say what? I was clueless and my wife wasn’t much help on this one. I started calling other guys to find out what they were going to wear. One friend was more clueless than the next. Were jeans too casual? Did I need a sport coat? Did my outfit have to be certain colors. I don’t think I’ve ever looked in my closet and thought, “Gee, some of my clothes bear a striking resemblance to the tones of gems!” I would have been less stressed had the invitation instructed us to dress like a favorite Disney character (well, there’s always next year!).

It’s usually easy for men to decide what to wear to parties. Weddings are either a black tuxedo or a dark suit. “Casual” can be jeans or slacks and a button-down shirt. I’m really not complaining because I know it’s much more challenging for women.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the details about the clothing of the priests continues. Even God’s instructions concerning the sacrificial burnt offering have a great deal to do with the special vestments of the high priest, Aaron, and the other priests. “The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body.” After the priest has taken up the ashes of the burnt offering he has to do a costume change. Even the priests’ clothes get anointed with oil and some of the blood from the sacrifice.

The late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes about the details of the priestly clothing: “Just as sacred space must be differentiated from profane space, so the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguishable from the laity. Hence, special attire, the insignia of office, is ordained for Aaron, the archetypal High Priest, and for his sons, the priests of lower rank.”

The reason for such minutiae when it comes the clothing of these holy men is l’chavod ultifaret (for dignity, honor, and splendor). The medieval commentator Sforno explains the use of these two Hebrew words. The vestments, he writes, “were for the dignity of God and to lend splendor to the office of the priest so that he would be revered by the people.”  I think that the vestments were as much for the dignity of the priests, of the wearer that is, as they were for God’s dignity.

This teaches us that what we wear says a great deal about us. All of these details about the priestly clothing reminds me of the famous dress code that was in effect for many years at IBM. Men had to dress in a dark colored suit, could only wear a white dress shirt, and could select a necktie of any conventional color; so long as it was solid – no patterns. For women, it was mostly the same – A dark, solid colored skirt and a white blouse. IBM believed that the way its workforce dressed portrayed the specific image that they wanted associated with their company. Apparently, they held the belief that it’s “the clothing that makes the man.”

And this belief was just as true in the 1990s, as companies like IBM shifted from strict, conservative dress codes to less-formal attire. Casual dress in the workplace became the new trend and “Dress down Fridays” became a popular section in most clothing stores. Companies like IBM believe that the way one dresses helps contribute to the way one works, behaves, and acts toward others. It also contributes to the way others view the wearer. When we get dressed in the morning, don’t we think about what type of image we want to portray for that day? Don’t we pick out our clothes for the day based on more than just the weather?

What we wear is representative of who we are, and indeed, where we come from. It speaks volumes about what we stand for and our own level of self-dignity. Styles do change. And society’s attitudes toward standards of proper attire do too. I might never fully comprehend how to dress in a “gem tones” attire, but I understand that our clothing is important.

Let us dress for success. Let us dress for style. And most important, let us dress l’chavod ultif’aret – for dignity, honor, and splendor.

Shabbat Shalom!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Curling Up With an E-Book on Shabbat?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Tech gadgets have changed our lives. And they will change our lives even more in the future.

For Sabbath observant Jews, tech gadgets pose some lingering questions about their usage on Shabbat. My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — the body that decides matters of Halakhah (Jewish law) for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Nevins has been working on a teshuvah (legal response) regarding the use of an e-book on Shabbat and was quoted on the matter in Uri Friedman’s recent article in The Atlantic, “People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age.”

I remember back in the 1990’s when CD-Roms containing entire collections of Jewish texts were first on the market. I saw a cartoon that in the first frame showed a Jewish library with hundreds of sets books — Bibles, Talmuds, rabbinic commentaries, etc. Each shelf was overfilled with Jewish books from the ancient to the modern. In the second frame, labeled modern Jewish library, was an entire library with empty shelves and one CD-Rom sitting on the shelf. At that time, the common response to the Jewish library becoming digital was that while it’s great to have the Talmud or Midrash on the computer six days of the week, on Shabbat we still want our traditional books.

Today, we’ve moved beyond having to load a CD into our computer to read Jewish books, study Torah, or look up reference material. We can now download the entire corpus of Jewish literature onto a mobile device like an e-reader. But the Shabbat issue is still relevant. Will technology trump the culture and experience of curling up with an actual book on Shabbat? As Menachem Wecker asked in his Forward article a few years ago, “Shabbat in the Age of Technology,” “Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?”

Even for Jews who do not hold by the electricity restrictions on Shabbat (namely that electricity is in the category of lighting a fire or building), reading a book or newspaper on an e-reader seems to be the antithesis of the Shabbat experience. As the print media industry continues to move in the digital direction (US News & World Report is adopting a “digital first” strategy), there may have to be some adaption.

Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic, “E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device – which causes words to dissolve and then resurface – an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.”

Friedman quotes rabbis from all over the denominational spectrum on the use of e-books on Shabbat. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat, says, “There’s real value in embracing technology. It’s just about knowing when to turn it off.” And the leader of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, explained that “since the Reform movement doesn’t consider Jewish law binding, ‘The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.'”

Rabbi Danny Nevins, who reasons that the use of electricity on Shabbat is not inherently forbidden, as the circuitry connection is neither creating a fire nor building something new, nevertheless regards many types of electrical and electronic appliances as violating either the formal or informal goals of Shabbat. He says, “E-readers like the Kindle are problematic both in that they create a durable image and encourage readers to go online to shop for additional content. It is conceivable that future versions may work better with Shabbat values, but the iPad demonstrates a tendency towards multi-functionality, indicating continued challenges for Shabbat use.” In The Atlantic article, he also explains this theory that using an e-reader may violate the Shabbat laws of t’chum, or boundaries.

The Torah says you shouldn’t leave your place on the seventh day. You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don’t go out of those boundaries… The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience.

I can understand ruling that reading an e-book on a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, etc. is a forbidden act on Shabbat because it is not within the spirit of Shabbat. That is to say, that things not in keeping with the spirit of the Sabbath day can pull us out of that state and back to the realities of the weekday. However, I don’t agree with the rationale that it shouldn’t be allowed based on the principle that we shouldn’t leave our place on Shabbat. Any good book, whether read from traditional paper or on a tech gadget has the potential to transcend us, breaking the boundaries of space and time. Even a good story-tale that I tell my children at bedtime on a Friday night can be a virtual experience that magically takes them away from the boundaries of space and time. In fact, on Shabbat we are even supposed to be virtually transported to get a taste of the World to Come through our prayer and Torah study experiences.

There is an informal litmus test when it comes to Shabbat activity that in Hebrew is known as “ruach shel shabbat” (the spirit of Shabbat). Thus, there are certain activities that may be permitted according to Halakhah, but don’t pass the test when it comes to the spirit of Shabbat. So, it may very well be that using an e-reader on Shabbat isn’t in the category of “Shabbosdik activities” simply because it doesn’t feel like an appropriate Sabbath activity. Or, perhaps because it can lead to activities that are forbidden like accidentally ordering a new book on the device during Shabbat.

No matter how one ultimately rules about the use of an e-reader to read e-books on Shabbat, one thing is certainly clear: Technology is here to stay and we have to figure out how to “make Shabbos” in this new and emergent Digital World.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller