According to the book of Exodus, anyone who breaks the rules of the Sabbath “shall surely be put to death.” But when, I ask, has anyone been put to death for picking out the bones in their salmon filet?
The Torah says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” In fact, it commands it—right after that whole Only One God thing. It then explains thirty-nine distinct ways in which Shabbat is kept holy. The Torah was written some 5771 years ago, however, so rabbis have since had to interpret and update those 39 to fit modern situations; the total number of applicable rules now exceeds 300. Three hundred from thirty-nine! Talk about cooking the books (Which, ironically, is not allowed on Shabbat). We get to 300 because the Torah says we must refrain from melakha, typically translated as work; but a more literal translation gives us workmanship or creative activity. Examples of Creative Activity include:
No spray painting on Shabbat. By the same rule, it’s prohibited to eat peanuts if you first blew away that brown outer skin.
Imagine being put to death on account of peanuts.
Or coleslaw. Making coleslaw is prohibited.
Making an ordinary salad is okay though, provided that the vegetables are neither cut into tiny pieces, nor cooked before being added to the salad.
It is prohibited to make tea on Shabbat. Well, it’s prohibited to make tea the normal way; pouring hot water over a bag of tea leaves. The hot water “cooks” the tea leaves, thus changing its property, which is not allowed. Yet pouring hot liquid into a cup of cold liquid is allowed. So to have holy Shabbat tea you must, before the start of Shabbat, soak the tea bag in a minimal amount of hot water to create a liquid tea essence; think of it as a tea shot. When you’re ready for your Shabbat tea, just pour hot water into your cup of tea essence, and—viola! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Only don’t actually put a lemon squeezy in your tea; that’s forbidden too.
It is prohibited to trap a fly under a cup on Shabbat.
No baking, boiling, frying, broiling, toasting, roasting, microwaving, sautéing, or barbecuing on Shabbat.
Unless someone’s life is at stake, you cannot extinguish a fire on Shabbat. If a fire is burning your house down, you are required to sit back and watch the holy flames engulf your beautiful home. You could call the Fire Department and have non-Jews put out the fire, but using a telephone also breaks the rules.
All this begs the question: What’s more important, following the letter of the law, or just the spirit? Some of the rules mentioned above, like making coleslaw or blowing away the peanut skins, would not be extraordinarily difficult to follow. Those laws were picked as examples precisely because they are somewhat absurd and arbitrary. But if you’re to follow the letter of the law you have to follow all the laws. What would you do if your house were on fire? Put it out; at least that’s what I’d do. I mean, it’s my house, my home; God would understand. According to Reform Judaism, “One should avoid one’s normal occupation or profession on Shabbat whenever possible and engage only in those types of activities that enhance the joy, rest and holiness of the day.” Having to remember 300 inane rules, or having to helplessly watch as my house burns down, seems anything but joyous and restful.
Yet I’m reminded of what an Orthodox rabbi once told me: that nowhere does it say Shabbat is supposed to be easy. It is extremely difficult to turn off your cell phone, to disconnect from Facebook, to let your email inbox fill up; and the prohibitions on cooking make using anything other than a Crock Pot a challenge (and even that requires some planning). It would be extremely difficult to watch your house burn down, but it can be equally as difficult to not swat the fly that keeps buzzing around your face.
Maybe that’s the spirit of Shabbat; little things, like letting that fly do its thing. Maybe the spirit of Shabbat lies in breaking up your routine enough to notice just what your routine is, or even that you have a routine in the first place. Or maybe Shabbat is about disconnecting from the conveniences and distractions to which we succumb the other six days of the week, to instead focus on what’s right in front of us: our family, our home, our health, our happiness. Those are things that anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, could always take more time to appreciate.
I believe I can still appreciate those things even if I remove the skin from my peanuts, but I often forget that the challenge of Shabbat involves finding that rest and joy despite all the convoluted rules. Some may argue that it is because of those rules that true rest and joy are possible. I don’t know, but I think the meaning of Shabbat, for anyone, no matter how closely they observe the rules, can be found in two simple words.
Filed Under: Being Jewish