Day 791: Surviving Shabbat

originally published March 1, 2014

I think for a change of pace today I’m going to throw caution to the flatulent wind and boldly discuss religion. First of all, Shabbat Shalom to all my Jewish friends. Secondly, you’d better not be reading this before sundown, lest the wrath of the almighty rain down upon you, which would really cut into your weekend.

Shabbat – that’s the Jewish Sabbath for those who aren’t up on the lingo – has always fascinated me. I was raised Jewish, inasmuch as I had a bar mitzvah and dutifully followed the careers of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Beyond that, I spent Christmases ripping open presents and downing eggnog with my mother’s family, and the rest of the year believing Jediism to be the one true faith. But I had a strange Shabbat experience back in high school.

I was spending the weekend with a Jewish youth group at the unreasonably massive home of one of our city’s wealthiest families. It was Friday evening (after sundown – Shabbat had rolled its opening credits) and I was winding down by listening to the Beatles’ White Album on my Walkman when one of the family’s smarmy little children scolded me for using an electronic device on the Sabbath. “It’s the White Album,” I told him. “Fuck off.”

The next day I went home. I’d have no part of a group that restricted my access to “Sexy Sadie”.

The rules of Shabbat – and I have no doubt that zillions of diligent Jewish lawyers have perused these Biblical statutes – have a catch: they need to be interpreted through modern technologies to determine whether or not they are relevant to our lives. Conservative and Reform Jews (and wholly non-practicing Jews like myself – you know, the one who are just in it for the bagels) tend to land on the side of ignoring the Shabbat limitations or not applying them to our modern conveniences. Orthodox Jews want to make sure their bases are covered, God-wise, and they have found ways to carry those ancient restrictions into the present. We heathens just want to have a good time and work a bunch of Yiddish words into our lexicon.

The Torah says you aren’t supposed to light a fire in your home on Shabbat. The big holy pickle here is determining whether electricity constitutes a fire, since the resistance to the current flow in the filament of a light bulb generates light and heat – pretty damn close to a fire, but not quite what the rabbis of old had in mind. Fortunately, there are work-arounds for the truly devoted.

A Shabbat Lamp is a light source that can be blocked out, allowing you to flick the switch before Friday sundown and use the lamp as you need to. You have to keep the lamp in the same place throughout the holy day (I’m telling you, some of these rules are just weird), so you can’t haul the thing around from room to room or tie it to your yarmulke like some Jewish coal miner. Alternately you can leave certain lights on for the entire day or rig them up beforehand with a pre-programmed timer.

That’s the beauty of devout Orthodoxy – you can take all the nit-picky regulations in the book and get creative trying to find ways around them. You’re not allowed to watch TV but if you set your PVR on Thursday you won’t have to worry about missing the latest episode of Blue Bloods. You can use a clock, but if you set the alarm to make sure you get a good seat in the synagogue in the morning (you know, close to the action), you can’t turn off the alarm after it wakes you. Your best bet is to use an iPod alarm clock that will let you wake up to some rockin’ Jewish tunes (I recommend some Perry Farrell or perhaps some Beck). Just block the off switch or you’ll anger the Guy upstairs. Let the alarm turn itself off.

You’re supposed to keep the Sabbath special by foregoing any “uvdin d’chol”, or mundane weekday activities. So typing on your computer is a no-no, though the fact that electricity is involved means you’ve already broken the rules. Stay off your phone too; trust voicemail to field the calls and know that your text messages will still be there when the sun goes down. No laundry, no dishwasher, no driving, and no rigging your house with a motion sensor to control the music and lights in a room. The rabbis are picky – they’ve already thought of that.

Even separating clothes in a way that could result in static electricity is forbidden. You can’t create a spark, because presumably if God sees you pull two socks apart in a way that creates a tiny scintilla of light, He’ll be pissed off.

So what about the Orthodox Jews who live in apartments? Do they have to take the stairs every Saturday? This is one of my favorite loopholes:

Many urban areas with large Jewish populations have figured this out. The Shabbat Elevators can be programmed to run continuously, stopping at every floor or every other floor. Pushing a button is using electricity, so the observant soul will simply step on and off the elevator as they need to. That means the elevator will be running constantly from sundown to sundown, which is an astounding waste of energy. But its riders will be in God’s good book, so screw the environment.

Some pedestrian crossings in Jewish areas are programmed the same way. They might require the push of a button throughout the week, but on the Sabbath they’ll simply activate every 90 seconds or so, whether someone is there to cross the street or not. What a treat for those trying to maneuver through traffic.

A blech is a kind of Jewish hotplate contraption. You aren’t allowed to cook on Shabbat, but you can fire up your stove’s burners and lay this tin or copper sheet over them to keep pots of food perpetually warm throughout the day. This isn’t going to cook your food, only keep it warm. I imagine the device is named ‘blech’ after the reaction that day-old semi-warm food is going to create at the table.

The rules of the Jewish Sabbath are lengthy and intricate, far more so than I’ve covered here. There’s much to learn, and while I honestly don’t believe there’s any great supreme being who will smite me for watching Arrested Development on a Saturday afternoon, I respect those who are willing to bend their lives to their principles. There are exceptions, of course. If someone has a heart attack on Shabbat you can call 9-1-1 or drive them to the hospital. Where real life emergency intervenes, you do what you’ve got to do.

Like when a particularly trying day calls for some crucial White Album listening. Just saying.

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