Firstly, the Rabbis teach us that Gentiles are not allowed to keep Shabbat. That is not so difficult because the laws for not violating it are so complicated that observance is impossible unless one studies and practices them for years. The reason for this Injunction is that all of Creation should do its specific task. If you really want to keep Shabbat, first become a Jew. So you can say that a Gentile can keep Shabbat by not keeping it.
Jews must keep Shabbat. And although Judaism is not a religion of all-or-nothing, you can’t keep Shabbat a little, as one cannot be pregnant a little. (Except as the partner of someone pregnant.) You need to abide by all the rules – there are hundreds, each with small details and intricacies, and they also intersect.
NB: Shabbat has two kinds of laws: Injunctions and Commandments. The latter instruct how to rejoice in Shabbat. In a way they are more important than the Prohibitions because we say every Shabbat morning before the meal (Exodus 31:16): You, the Children of Israel, shall keep the Shabbat, [which means] to make the Shabbat for [the benefit of] their children, [which will be as] an Eternal Covenant. That means: If you make something out of the Shabbat – and not just observe it – your offspring will celebrate Shabbat too, forever. Yet, celebrating Shabbat cannot compensate for not keeping it.
Now, keeping Shabbat is very central in Judaism. More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. Praying, Jewish family life (not intermarrying) and kashrut (dietary laws) are very important too, but Shabbat beats them all. So, a Jew not keeping Shabbat laws is a big deal.
I have noticed for years that there are Jews who call themselves non-observant because they don’t obey all the Shabbat rules. However, some of them could be called somehow observant after all. How so?
There are two kinds of Injunctions in Judaism: Biblical and Rabbinic. They have in common that they both should not be violated. But their goals are different. Biblical Prohibitions are Divine Demands. You didn’t observe them, you disobeyed the Creator. But Rabbinic Prohibitions are fences around the Biblical ones. An example: Jews are not allowed to write on Shabbat. [Except physicians saving lives. Saving a life always goes before keeping Shabbat.] The Rabbis have forbidden us to move pens and blank sheets of paper – since the only thing you could do with them is violate Shabbat. Now, there is a problem with such fences.
These fences were erected for safeguarding. That we shouldn’t accidentally come to violation. They are designed to keep the Jews Jewish. But nowadays we see them sometimes work the opposite way. Some Jews violate only Rabbinic Prohibitions – and that is Biblically forbidden too – and therefore call themselves non-observant. Instead of keeping these Jews in, here they keep Jews out. That is a problem.
No Rabbi has permission to allow any Jew to violate a Rabbinic Prohibition for those finding it too difficult. And no observant Jew should think that I make light of Rabbinic Injunctions – Heaven forbid. And yet, some people who violate them might return to the fold if we make clear that the purpose of some laws is to keep Jews in, not to push them out.
Now, if you have any Fear of Heaven, you don’t want to ignore, to live without Rabbinic Injunctions. Any move could make you a Shabbat violator – a status most hated by G^d. But I’m here talking about Jews who are already violating Shabbat. Can’t we tell them about the fence character of many of the laws?
An example: Someone loves to wake up to classical music. So their alarm on Shabbat morning switches on the radio. For them, that is Shabbat – a day set aside. They are celebrating Shabbat, no doubt. But they also violate it. Especially if they listen to an Israeli channel, profiting from Shabbat violations by other Jews. They hold themselves as non-observant.
The Sages teach us not to regard yourself evil. The reason is obvious for me. Calling yourself wicked opens up all the doors to the evil inclination. If you are evil, all is allowed, no? Correspondingly, one shouldn’t call oneself a smoker. How could one stop if this is who one is? You’re a person who smokes. Likewise, if you in some ways violate Shabbat, try to find ways to violate only Rabbinic Injunctions. Not that you are allow to, but they’re meant to keep you in, not to push you out! Don’t listen to your radio – switch on a CD player with your favorite music. Also: try to increase your celebration of Shabbat to help you stop the violation.
For this we also learn that it is wrong – and not pious – to try to make all Injunctions come out Biblically. Not only not trying to force people to keep Shabbat, and trying to accommodate them not keeping it, but also trying to make their level of observance sort-of kosher for them. To use an umbrella (where there is an ‘eruv) is mostly a violation of a holy custom. To walk in shoes with flashlights or write sms messages is only a Rabbinic Infringement. Many Rabbis agree that to switch on or off TL or LED lights is really only a Rabbinic Violation. How many young people from religious homes are bored on Shabbat, start using their mobile phone and then assume that they are now secular?!
It’s good to be a fanatic for oneself, since Shabbat Observance is an all-or-nothing, but make sure that well-meaning zealousness does not result in pushing away Jews who are not where we are. We need Rabbis teaching this. They’re smart enough. Now, let them show they care enough.