We were in Israel for two Shabbats, the Jewish Sabbath that begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown Saturday. Most schools, businesses, shops and even tourist sites close at 3:00 pm on Friday and don’t reopen until Sunday morning.
According to Old Testament law, work is forbidden on Shabbat. The 4th commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
Over the centuries, Judaism has attempted to interpreted what is work and what isn’t, what is forbidden on Shabbat and what is allowed, ending up with a complex and somewhat overwhelming list of rules to be followed. Here’s a basic list of activities that ought to be avoided on Shabbat:
- writing, erasing, and tearing
- business transactions
- driving or riding in cars or other vehicles
- using the telephone
- turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, televisions, computers, air-conditioners and alarm clocks
- cooking, baking or kindling a fire
- gardening and grass-mowing
- doing laundry
- carrying anything outdoors or transferring objects between an enclosed domain, such as the house, and a public domain, such as the street
There are detailed rules pertaining to each of these. For example, the refrigerator can be used because it is on all the time, but to ensure that it’s use doesn’t involve turning something on or off, the fridge light should be disconnected before Shabbat by unscrewing the bulb slightly. The rule about carrying things outdoors would include carrying anything in your pocket or even having gum in your mouth! Of course, as in any culture or religion, there are those who follow the Shabbat rules to the nth degree and those who don’t.
Clearly our Lord took exception to the interpretations of the 4th commandment that were in vogue in His day as He was criticized by the religious leaders for healing the sick on the Sabbath (John 5:1-15) and for allowing His disciples to pick heads of grain and eat them when they passed through the fields on that day of the week. (Matthew 12:1-2)
In one of our hotels, we had the choice of three door hangers to notify the staff of our various needs or intentions.
Many hotels in Israel allow a late checkout on Saturday for Shabbat observers, enabling them to stay in the hotel until after sundown. Attending synagogue on Shabbat is considered essential by most Jews, so many hotels also have a synagogue within the building.
We were warned to avoid using the specially designated Shabbat elevators in our hotels unless we had lots of time to spare. Set to go up and down continuously, stopping and opening at every floor for the entire 24 hour Shabbat period, these elevators ensure that Shabbat observers don’t have to push any buttons which would be construed as work.
Friday dinners in our hotels were festive affairs with many Jewish families there to celebrate Shabbat. Going out for dinner ensured that they kept the no cooking rule and they didn’t seem to object to the fact that someone else had to work to prepare and serve the meal! The already sumptuous buffets were even more elaborate on those days and it definitely wasn’t all food that was prepared in advance. Saturday breakfasts, however, were more basic than the other days and involved very little hot food.
Of course, the people we saw at dinner in the hotels were not the ultra-Orthodox Jews. They would have been at home observing Shabbat in a much more traditional way. We drove through an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on our way back to our hotel in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon and observed them scuttling about making their last minute purchases and preparations before retiring to their homes.
Our guide pointed out that the various ways that the men were dressed indicated membership in different sects. Height or style of hat, coat length, whether his socks are black or white, and whether or not his pants are tucked into his socks are all indicators of which group a man is part of. The women’s clothing is much less distinctive, but very conservative. For example, they would never be seen in public wearing pants. A large overhead billboard as we entered the neighbourhood advised us how we ought to dress while we were there.
Photo: Lisa Mathon – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2024503
So who are these ultra-Orthodox people? Though they consider themselves the most religiously authentic Jews, they don’t seem to be very productive members of Israeli society and are seen by many as a drain on the economy. Less than 50% of the men are employed. Instead, many spend long hours every day praying and studying scripture while the family lives off Israel’s generous social welfare system. Like many other Israelis, our guide, Shimon, resents how much he pays in taxes to support these people. Apparently, this is a huge political issue at election time. Another source of resentment for many is the fact that, upon the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, ultra-Orthodox males of military age were exempted from universal conscription into the Israel Defense Forces. Officially, those who were enrolled in yeshiva, an institution focusing on the study of traditional religious texts, were granted deferred entry into the IDF, but in practice few serve at all. At the time when this agreement was made, only about 400 individuals were affected, but due to their extremely high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox are now estimated to make up approximately 10% of the Israeli population!
Well, even though the days are getting longer it’s now past sundown on a Friday afternoon in my part of the world so I wish you Shabbat Shalom or, in English, Sabbath Peace!