As I look back across Jewish history, Sabbath observance has always been a problem.

The exhibit in its glory at the First Station. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The exhibit in its glory at the First Station.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The year: 1930
The joke:
Two Polish non-Jewish maids meet after not seeing one another since they went into service a couple of years earlier. One works for a Polish Christian family; one for a Jewish family.
The conversation:
“What’s it like working for Jews?”
“They’re okay. They treat me nicely. But…”
“But what?”
“They have some weird customs. I can’t figure them out.”
“What do you mean?”
“One day a week, they eat in the dining room and smoke in the toilet. One day a year they smoke in the dining room and eat in the toilet. And one day a year, they eat in the toilet and smoke in the toilet….”
JOKES ARE often a form of social commentary, a way of looking at reality sideways. This joke was born out of the reality of creeping secularization of the millions of Polish Jews before World War II. In case the reader has missed some of the joke, let’s make it clear: One day a week smoking in the toilet refers to Shabbat. One day a year smoking in the dining room and eating in the toilet is the fast of Tisha Be’av, and of course the epitome of leaving Orthodoxy: both smoking and eating on Yom Kippur.
To belabor the point, the joke pokes fun at those who have left Orthodoxy but are afraid to “come out of the closet,” to go against the consensus. The reason could be fear of causing a family rift or social ostracism or even refusing to do business with them. We see similar phenomena in Israel when a young person leaves the ultra-Orthodox cocoon.
Here in Israel, Shabbat is the official day of rest. This has led to many places of work making Friday a day off, and for those that do operate on Friday, such as supermarkets and restaurants, to shortened Friday hours. I don’t know how it is in Tel Aviv (and would love to be enlightened by residents of that and other large cities) but here in Jerusalem, there is a pre-Shabbat hush as Friday evening approaches, traffic abates, and traditional food aromas trigger salivary glands.
Now a word of clarification to what comes next. In terms of observing Shabbat as a day of re-creation of oneself, or a day of “delight” as the Bible calls it, I include here all those who are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or who practice Humanistic Judaism. All of these make Shabbat a “separate” day.
“Separate” is quite probably the original meaning of the Hebrew kadosh, usually translated as “holy.” That is to say this spectrum of Jews add to the element of “rest” on the Sabbath, an expansion of their intellectual and spiritual selves and enhancing family ties. That is the theory. The actual practice again may differ not only between one and another of these streams of Jewishness, but between members of the same group.
As I look back across Jewish history, Sabbath observance has always been a problem. As opposed to the conventional view that in past generations, Jews were shining examples of pure Sabbath observance, the truth is just the opposite. The early biblical narrative tells of the Sabbath being violated by a man gathering wood (Numbers 15) and later the prophet Isaiah in effect says, “If you would only observe the Sabbath…” (Isaiah 58).
Shabbat should be shown to be a gift. It is a revolutionary idea: one day a week you belong to yourself and your loved ones. You are not answerable to another human being. Men and women are free and equal that day. Rather than seeing Shabbat as a day of “don’t,” make it a day of joy. People listen to the radio; watch television; go to national parks and to swimming beaches; use WiFi appliances. They make these practices part of the separateness of Shabbat, see Shabbat not as day of no no no, but a day of assertion of of freedom and awareness of the beauty of our tradition.
SOME OF you may think I am trying to sneak “religion” into the consciousness of the non-observant Jew. Not so. As proof, I cite lines from an interview by The Jerusalem Post’s brilliant Judy Siegel-Itzkovich with Lord Rees of Ludlow, one of the great scientists of our age.
“Rees… describes himself as an atheist. ‘I was brought up attending the English church. I value its musical and architectural legacy and would be saddened if this were eroded. Religion is part of our communal heritage. I make a comparison to the Jewish faith. There are a lot of people who identify as Jews but say they are atheists, but nevertheless light candles on Friday. It is a custom. I understand and resonate with that attitude. Likewise, even though I don’t have any religious beliefs, I cherish the culture I grew up in.’”
The key words used by Lord Rees, who is the Astronomer Royal and master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, are “custom, heritage and culture.” There are hundreds of thousand of Israelis, born here or who immigrated in the last few decades, who see Shabbat as a day off, a day to do the laundry or the shopping. In this high-pressure world this is a fact and no amount of coercion will stop it. Nor do I have the right to request that they desist.
Rather, I would like to heighten their recognition of Shabbat as a “special, or separate” day as part of our culture and heritage, rich and a delight. How we do that is not easy. I have come up with some initial ideas and would welcome more.
One of the beauties of an Orthodox Shabbat is the quiet, the break from the mundane. Perhaps we could ask some of the radio stations and television channels not to carry advertising during a couple of hours on Friday night. Also not to carry the news or political discussions at that time. Perhaps then they could broadcast classical traditional music, just as on Sundays church music is broadcast. Certainly quiet music, food for the soul. Perhaps other stations and channels would do the same Saturday morning, say from 9 to 10:30 a.m.
I remember the first time I heard the announcer on Kol Israel say “Shabbat Shalom’ at the approach of the Sabbath. Imagine hearing an announcer saying, “In honor of Shabbat, we now bring you the following program….”
What difference would it make? Instead of asking that question, so negative, think positively. Let’s try it and see. Maybe the culture minister can find a budget for this to help compensate the media.
Now my dear observant friends, don’t snarl at me or at these ideas. I am acting in accordance with the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, we are told, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it separate (holy).” We need to remind ourselves, by whatever means, that Shabbat is a gift our culture and heritage gave us, and eventually to almost the entire world.
The writer believes his form of Sabbath observance has enriched every facet of his life and that of his family in Israel. It was and is a day of relief from the stress and sometimes even the horrors of modern history, a day of rich intellectual seeking, of learning and of love, especially of family.