When Shabbes And Shabbesdik Collide
Wed, 04/28/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DI STRIBUTION COMMITTEE. Shabbat held in one of the dormitories for Jewish refugees.  Shanghai, China 1940
AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DI STRIBUTION COMMITTEE. Shabbat held in one of the dormitories for Jewish refugees. Shanghai, China 1940

Shabbes! Shabbes!! Has it ever struck you as odd, those scenes in Jerusalem of fervently Orthodox Jews blocking cars and throwing stones on the holy day, to protest its desecration? To you, this may seem absurd and repellent, a blatant violation of the tranquility of Shabbat. To them, it’s a matter of life and death, not just a lifestyle choice. In short: what is or isn’t shabbesdik — in the spirit of the Sabbath, in Yiddish — is very much a subjective affair.

If the behavior of the rioting black-coated haredim upsets you, maybe blame Nahmanides, also known as Ramban. Attributed to this great kabbalist and Bible commentator, who fled Christian Spain for Palestine in the 13th century, is a long Rosh HaShanah sermon preached in the Crusader city of Acre. “Dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal in importance to all the commandments of the Torah,” says the rabbi, quoting an ancient Talmudic text. A newcomer to Eretz Yisrael at age 73, Ramban speaks of “those who are privileged to dwell before the Holy One, Blessed be He, in his Land, for they are as those who see the King’s face”:

 If they are heedful of His honor, it is beneficial to them and they are happy. However, if they rebel against Him, woe to them more so than to all [other] people, for they make war and provoke the King in His [own] palace. He [therefore] removes them from there, as Scripture states, a people that provoke Me to My face continually 

[Isaiah 65:3].   

 Yikes. This is a risk the fearful follower cannot take. He (or she) would never dream of performing any of the 39 categories of work (“Grinding,” “Baking,” “Spinning” et al) prohibited by the Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2). Some other guy, though, could bring down the wrath of God on all Israel by running a parking lot on Shabbes in Jerusalem, barely a mile from the Temple Mount. Accordingly, for some religious folk, harassing impious Jews is not per se un-shabbesdik, and throwing stones is not one of the forbidden 39.    

My father was an observant Jew, flexible in his Orthodoxy. He was a Zionist, who (like Nahmanides) made aliyah in retirement and ranked it his highest joy. In fact, he used to tell me back in Brooklyn that the State of Israel, for him, was the Third Temple. For this reason, he would allow me to play my guitar at home on Shabbat (a violation of “Finishing,” which includes tuning or repairing a string), on the grounds that the priestly Levites, in biblical antiquity, played instruments in the Temple on the holy day. (We were the only Orthodox Jews on the block, so who cared if the neighbors heard?) 

Unlike hilltop zealots in Judea and Samaria and their fans, my father meant his Third Temple only as metaphor. But he did impose a stern rule: the music I played had to be shabbesdik. Aramaic hymns and Hasidic niggunim, Israeli folk songs, perhaps a tasteful Dylan tune like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” preferably in Hebrew translation. Today, I like the guitars in American synagogues at Shabbat services, but I’m glad we’ve not yet made that move at the Israeli Reform shul I attend, mainly because we’re located right next door to an Orthodox synagogue. Offending them, I believe, would not be shabbesdik. I feel for them because, like many Israelis, I have an Orthodox heart and heterodox head. Like I said, it’s all subjective. 

Take the case of Ahad Ha’am, the brilliant Hebrew essayist and father of cultural Zionism, who lacerated political Zionists Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau for being insufficiently Jewish. Born Asher Ginzberg in 1856, Ahad Ha’am was a chasidic prodigy who strayed from Orthodoxy. In Odessa and London, reports his biographer Steven Zipperstein, he hosted smoke-filled Zionist salons on Friday nights, as his observant wife lit Shabbes candles in the next room. (Israel today is loaded with such couples.) “In my home we keep certain ritual practices,” Ahad Ha’am wrote, “especially the Sabbath and festivals (even though I am not careful to avoid all that technically falls under the category of ‘work’ as defined by Jewish law.)” Or as the Dude’s pal Walter from “The Big Lebowski” might clarify with an expletive: not shomer shabbes.  

But Walter, a halachist at heart, would be wrong. In 1898, Ahad Ha’am published a Hebrew essay called “Shabbat v’Tziyonut,” meaning Shabbes and Zionism. “Anyone who feels a true bond in his heart,” he wrote with Talmudic convolution, “with the life of the nation over many generations, simply will not be able — even if he believes neither in the World to Come nor the Jewish State — to imagine the Jewish People without Shabbat Malketa,” Sabbath Queen in Aramaic. The very next sentence is Ahad Ha’am’s best-known aphorism: “It may be said without exaggeration that more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, it was the Sabbath that kept them.” The Hebrew verb here is past tense of shomer — which means not only “keep” but “protect.”  

A luminous observation, an uplifting lesson for the ages, followed in Ahad Ha’am’s essay by an attack on Nordau and an invidious discussion of authentic Eastern (i.e. Russian-Polish) versus assimilated Western (Paris, Berlin, Vienna) Jews — a riff that sounds like an un-shabbesdik Friday-night tirade in a smoke-filled room. Isn’t this, the reader may wonder, precisely what the Jews need protection from? Internecine rivalries and inter-communal strife have brought the Jews down in the past, and should not be what Zionism is all about. But hey, Ahad Ha’am was a prophet. The mixture he advocated of Shabbes and nationalism is a heady brew in the Land of Israel today, and also a combustible cocktail. 

What to do?  Escape — into sweet shabbesdik reverie. Let me close this sermonette with a tale about Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, founding father of chasidism, who lived in 18th-century Poland. I found it in the indispensable “Hasidic Anthology,” published in 1934 by Louis I. Newman, who found it in a Yiddish collection from 1922, where it is attributed to “the Sadigurer Hasid, Reb Leibush Istriker,” who told the story at “the communal third meal of the Sabbath,” which sounds much better in Yiddish: shaloshudos. The holy day wanes. It is a fine time for a story.

When the Ba’al Shem Tov (known as the Besht) “was still seeking the proper way to serve the Lord,” he found that rabbis for the past few centuries were so strict in their Sabbath rulings that they “prohibited any movement.” This fills “a man with anxiety lest he transgress some strict regulation.” (Pause now to imagine this way of thinking, amplified tenfold in holy Jerusalem.) The Besht, of course, being a pure chasid, was against such legalistic self-shackling. He believed, says the storyteller, that it contradicted “the command of Isaiah to ‘call the Sabbath oneg,’” a delight (Isaiah 58:13.)  

The Besht promptly has a dream, about two Jewish men, one destined for Heaven and other for Gehenna (Jewish Hell, whatever that may mean.) The latter man, fixated on the letter of the Law, spends the Sabbath in a state of high anxiety, “as if he were sitting on hot coals.”  More in keeping with Isaiah’s dictum is the other chap, who is “living among non-Jews, ignorant of Judaism, except that on the Sabbath he gave a banquet for his non-Jewish friends, wherein he greatly rejoiced.”  This is the man destined for Paradise, where “two vacant seats” await — one for this jolly party-giver, the other for the Besht. 

Is this not a lovely, liberating story?  Depends whom you ask. To me, it’s a shabbesdiker tonic in troubled times; to my neighbor in black gabardine, something else, though you never do know. As the saying might go, chacun à son cholent, to each his own Shabbes. 

Stuart Schoffman, an American-Israeli columnist and translator, is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.