Walking through the streets of Teaneck this past Shabbos, I started thinking about a “Good Shabbos” game my brothers and I used to play each week as we made our way across town.
My 11-year-old brother snickers once the man — who had barely looked up from the sidewalk as he passed, but still managed to mutter something resembling “gdshbs” under his breath — is well behind us.
A second opportunity arises. Two women, power-walking, speed past us on the left. They’re absorbed in conversation, but one nods and the other throws a quick “Good Shabbos” over her shoulder. “P’jms,” my brother mumbles. Quickly. It has to be said quickly for both full effect and so as not to be discovered. The women continue on, oblivious to this wordplay.
A minute passes. An approaching teenager with hands in his pockets eyes us from afar and abruptly crosses to the other side of the street. My brother scowls, a pajama-moment taken away from him.
“Shabbat shalom.” This from a smiling woman who started eye contact well before her approach.
There’s no real way to fake a Shabbat shalom. But it’s been said well above a whisper, and proudly, and kindly, and prepared in advance, so to us it deserves an equally respectful response. Shabbat shaloms are often like that; I’m not quite sure why that is.
“Good Shabbos,” my brother responds, this time audibly and un-p’jms-like.
“Shabbat shalom,” I reply. It feels unauthentic to say these words, as I’m from a “good Shabbos” kind of family. Still, I answer her in kind, out of respect: maybe she has a pet peeve about how people respond “good Shabbos” to her “Shabbat shalom.” Who knows? Everyone has a pet peeve these days.
This brief, polite exchange seems to actually discourage my brother and makes me momentarily question the basis for his pajama game. We’ve come to expect passersby to be less respectful than that. This woman has ruined all the fun.
A family friend, accompanied by a few other adults, smiles and gives a quick wave as they approach. He pauses his conversation mid-sentence and offers an obligatory: “How are you?”
“Good,” says my brother.
“Good,” I repeat.
“Well, good, good. Tell your folks I say hello.”
“All right. Good, good.” And off they go.
Another minute. A family of five waddles past, one behind the other.
“P’jms,” I try, seeing that my brother has lost some of his steam. No response. Averted eyes. Not even a nod. “Good Shabbos,” I announce. They continue on. “…uh…or not?” They either don’t hear or they don’t acknowledge. Not a backwards glance. My brother and I exchange looks. Maybe the p’jms game isn’t quite over yet.
Just another Shabbos afternoon wandering through suburbia.
Okay, fine. The scene above didn’t actually happen, in that exact order. But versions of these scenarios happen just about every single Shabbos, and I’d bet that a lot of you know exactly what I mean. So can we please talk about this for a minute? Is there some kind of appropriate passing-someone-on-the-street-on-Shabbos-etiquette that I’m missing here? Has saying “good Shabbos” become so mundane in our little world that the phrase has fallen both flat and on deaf ears?
Now of course, there may be a reasonable explanation as to why a snubbee shouldn’t take a good-Shabbos-snub personally. Perhaps the snubber is physically preoccupied, like for example, parents making sure their children don’t run too far ahead or wander into the street. That’s perfectly understandable. But when the alleged snubber is too entranced by the three-lot houses lining Boardwalk and Park Place to pay attention to anything else? Or they’re in a rush and have neither the time nor the capability to utter two courteous words? It does happen, you know. Shabbos greetings, too heavy to bear, are sometimes discarded entirely. It’s OK to good-Shabbos-snub someone if you’re snubbing everybody, no?
Or perhaps the supposed snubber is mentally preoccupied. The factors within this territory are endless, ranging from the mundane to the serious, and I’m not even going to cross the border to take a look. But it’s possible and often the case that someone is so lost in thought that he or she neither hears the greeting nor notices from whom it was uttered.
Which relates to a person who looks distraught, or maybe just seems to be having a bad day. In such cases, a sincere “Have a nice day” might be a good add-on to a clearly spoken “good Shabbos.” Unless you know the person. If you do, maybe a more in-depth conversation is in order. Or a sincere invitation to talk at a specific later date. Or anything that shows that you care and really do want him or her to have a good Shabbos, not just a p’jms.
Which leads to yet another custom I just don’t get, similar to what’s mentioned above: the in-passing “Hey, how ya’ doing?” Such as:
“How are you?”
“Okay, well, nice seeing you.”
Do you really want to know how I am right then? Or when, more likely, you continue on your way before I even have a chance to lie: “Just fine, thanks”? Yes, I know I’m reacting literally to a colloquialism, but I just don’t like it and I’m sure many of you out there would agree. It’s like when people literally think that saying “literally” is literally grammatically correct. I should just leave it alone, I suppose. At least it’s not a “gdshbs” mumble, or worse yet, a good-Shabbos-snub.
I have some friends who stop and really chat, sincerely, for various lengths of time, depending on the relationship between the good-Shabbos-ers. My sister-in-law takes the cake on this one. Even if with just an acquaintance: A big smile. A “good Shabbos!” A specific “What’s going on with…” inquiry. A “Have a nice day!” Now that’s the way to do it. And if there’s no extensive conversation, a plain old “good Shabbos!” is no small feat.
I try to give benefit of the doubt. There are many reasons why, physically or mentally, the alleged snubber might be preoccupied. Maybe it’s best to go according to the principle that you should never judge a person until you walk a mile in his or her shoes. Which, of course, is another possibility: the woman in the 5-inch heels who barely notices anything at all as she scolds herself for not carrying along flats.
Which reminds me of yet something else. Maybe, possibly, the other person just flat-out doesn’t like you.
In which case: a “p’jms” right back at ya!
This column was originally published in The Jewish Standard in May 2014.