Middle Israel: The Sabbath Gentile’s grand return

Yes, the Shabbes goys represented the happy side of Gentile-Jewish . Even so, they were part of what the Jewish state was designed to replace.

Moshe Gafni
‘I have been amazed since my youth about those who forbid basking in a fire that was lit [on the Sabbath] for a Jew by a Gentile,” Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny wrote in the 12th century.
The permission for a Jew to enjoy a fire kindled on the Sabbath by a non-Jew was but one milestone in the evolution over the centuries of the Gentile of Sabbath. The Shabbes goy, as he and she were called in Yiddish, was commonly used to do for a Jew what the Jew was forbidden to do on Shabbat.
As it did with “eye for an eye,” which it reduced to a fine, rabbinical Judaism compromised the demand that on Shabbat “you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements” (Exodus 20:10).
As noted by historian Jacob Katz (The “Shabbes Goy”: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility, 1989), Jews sailed on Shabbat in boats navigated by non-Jews; Jews let Gentiles extinguish on Shabbat fires that threatened Jewish property; Jews gave non-Jewish repairmen damaged tools on Friday, knowing they would be repaired on Saturday; Jewish farmers let their non-Jewish partners till on Shabbat fields they shared; Jews used on Shabbat Gentiles’ candlelight, provided the Jew did not request the candle’s lighting; and Jews hired nominal Gentile partners so, when their business ran on Shabbat, it would be formally someone else’s.
It was in the spirit of this tradition that Harry Truman flicked lights on Saturdays for the Viner family next door, the way Al Gore later did for Joe Lieberman while hosting him in his parents’ apartment, and the way Barack Obama did for Ira Silverstein, his office neighbor in the Illinois Senate.
Yes, the Shabbes goys represented the happy side of Gentile-Jewish relations – non-Jews who readily helped Jews observe their faith.
Even so, they were part of what the Jewish state was designed to replace.
THE SHABBES GOY was a by-product of galut, the era when the Jews were a perennial minority whose jurists no longer thought of how to shape the public sphere – which they no longer controlled – let alone how to run a state.
Instead, what they now cared about was how to make a Jew warm on the Sabbath even in Rabbi Yom Tov’s native France, where winter was an entirely different matter from what Halacha previously faced between Egypt and Babylon.
This is the backdrop against which Knesset Finance Committee chairman Rabbi Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) this week boasted that ultra-Orthodoxy had just made it harder to open Tel Aviv’s minimarkets on Shabbat, and that this will be enforced by “hundreds of Gentile inspectors.”
Middle Israelis don’t like the Shabbes goy concept.
Where we live, Orthodox lawmakers don’t need a Shabbes goy because the Knesset is locked on Shabbat, as are all government offices, municipal services and courts of law. It’s a Jewish state, one that asks daily how to reconcile faith and state, rather than how to serve the mostly small-time causes that the Shabbes goy ordinarily solved.
The Shabbes goy is to us part of the exile, where the same Rabbi Yom Tov who issued rulings concerning a Shabbes goy’s fire eventually went up in the flames of the 1190 Massacre of York. That is the backdrop against which religious kibbutzim sought – and found – ways to milk their cows on Shabbat by themselves rather than use the Shabbes goy.
Yes, questions abound concerning the Jewish state’s Sabbath.
Consumer demand to let restaurants, theaters and cafés open on Shabbat proved too big to ignore.
That is why the politicians delegated such decisions to local government, which mostly secular cities like Tel Aviv and Ashdod expanded also to minimarkets.
Now, however, the ultra- Orthodox parties had the Knesset grant the usually ultra-Orthodox interior minister the power to overrule municipalities and shut down the minimarkets that local city councils think should be open. Violators, as Gafni gloated, will be caught by the Shabbes goy, whose original role – to help Jewish observance – will morph into helping Jewish strife.
This is reckless.
For one thing, stores are not government agencies. What they do and don’t do should be decided by the local community, not the government, let alone one man within it. Worse, Gafni’s battalions of Shabbes goyim will be mostly Druse and Muslim Israelis who will thus be pitted against Jews who will see in them agents of their financial losses.
This matters nothing to ultra-Orthodoxy, whose pragmatism when it comes to a convenience like the Shabbes goy vanishes when it comes to considering historic change and caring for the big society that sprawls beyond their ghettos.
THE HISTORIC change ultra-Orthodox politicians refuse to accept is that most Jews are not Orthodox, and millions now shape their own Shabbat without rabbinical mediation. The social interest they ignore is that Israel’s non-Jews not be dragged into its intra-Jewish struggles.
The very same denialism plagues ultra-Orthodoxy’s inversions – the Orthodox ultranationalists.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s statement following a woman’s appointment as an IAF squadron commander that “the IDF adopted a crazy feminist agenda,” and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s call on conscripts to stay home rather than serve in mixed-gender units – reflect the same Orthodox refusal to accept historic change and acknowledge the broader social need.
The historic change they can’t stomach is that in today’s Israel, with women heading the Supreme Court, the Bank of Israel and three of the five major commercial banks, it is absurd to demand that a woman not command several aircraft and the men within them.
And the social imperative these rabbis ignore is that conscripts obey their elected government, and not this or that unelected rabbi’s shot from the lip.
Yet ultranationalist rabbis, like ultra-Orthodox politicians, evidently don’t care what their abuse of Jewish law will cause. Gafni’s agenda will be served by the Druse he will unleash on secular store owners, and Aviner’s will be served by us, the Middle Israelis who will fight for his disciples while they dodge the feminist IDF’s draft. We will be their Shabbes goys.