Shabbat Rest in the 21st Century

Question

I just attended my first Weekend Retreat, and I want to thank you all for a most wonderful and thought-provoking time. I have a few questions about my concept of Shabbos in the 20th and 21st centuries. I enjoyed Rabbi Becher’s anecdote about walking up the 20 flights of stairs on the “day of rest”, but the irony bothers me. Is climbing the stairs more “restful” than pushing an elevator button? I understand that closing an electrical switch may create a spark that might be equated to lighting a fire. An electrical capacitor across the contacts of the switch would eliminate any spark whatsoever. And the usual remedy, a Shabbos Elevator, gives money to the Arabs. In olden times when people did hard physical labor, a day of rest, prayer, and learning Torah would understandably be looked forward to. Today, Shabbos, with its proscription on driving, exercising for enjoyment, and using subterfuges such as timers for turning on lights seems to me to be more a nuisance than a joy.

, 13 years

Answers

  1. It was great to see you at the retreat and I am happy you gained from it. I actually addressed your question in my class on Torah and Science, where I pointed out that electricity on Shabbat has nothing to do with the spark or fire. Rather it is prohibited because by closing an electric circuit you are taking something that is not functioning and by creating/allowing electron flow through the circuit you are putting it in working order. The category of prohibited activity under which this falls is building/constructing. In order to understand this on a more philosophical, less techincal level, below is an excerpt from my book, Gateway to Judaism, which I believe will answer your questions.

    The Sabbath

    The Sabbath (Shabbos or Shabbat in Hebrew) is one of the most prominent and central features of Jewish life. [1] To one who is unfamiliar with its laws and philosophy, many aspects of the observance of the Sabbath may appear illogical and even bizarre. I once spent Shabbat at the Holiday Inn in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where I was given a room on the eleventh floor of the hotel. I did not use the elevator because of the Shabbat restriction against turning electric circuits on or off (to be explained later), so instead I used the staircase designated for the staff. Wheezing and staggering up the tenth flight of stairs I encountered a waiter at the hotel, who asked me why I was not using the elevator. I replied, “Because it is the Sabbath, our day of rest.” We looked at each other for a moment; he nervously smiled and sped away before I could explain how climbing eleven flights of stairs is considered “rest.” In this chapter we will try to explain the meaning of Shabbat and demonstrate the unity of its law and philosophy.

    The Torah emphasizes the importance of the Shabbat in numerous places. It is, in fact, the fourth of the Ten Commandments. In Jewish tradition, we consider the Ten Commandments to be principles from which all the six hundred and thirteen commandments can be derived.[2] Since Shabbat is one of these “root commandments,” it is logical to assume that Shabbat must include within it many other commandments, ideas and principals. The idea that a human should not be a slave to the physical world, that our power comes with obligation, and that it is possible to achieve harmony in life, are all concepts that are embodied within the commandment of Shabbat, as we shall explain.

    Shabbat and Creation

    The Talmud points out that observance of Shabbat is testimony to belief in God, belief in Creation and belief in Divine Providence.[3] The first chapter of Genesis relates the successive stages of the creation of the world. From a state of absolute nothingness, God created time, space and the entire physical world. This process of creation took six days, and on the seventh day God “rested” and created the Shabbat. Because of the centrality of our belief that God created the world from nothing and continues to be involved in its ongoing existence, it is customary to recite the section in the Torah describing this process[4] during the synagogue services on Friday night.[5] The verses are recited aloud, while standing, just as testimony must be given by witnesses in a Jewish court of law.[6]

    The Impact of Shabbat

    Shabbat also has a tremendous sociological and psychological impact on the Jewish people. No matter what is going on in the outside world, no matter how hard a person works during the week, on Shabbat everyone feels like royalty – everyone dresses in his or her best clothing, candles are lit, festive meals are eaten. No one engages in work, business is not discussed, and an atmosphere of relaxation and serenity is created. Once the usual weekday distractions are removed, we are able to devote ourselves to mo

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team