Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh they shall rest: Resolving the conflict over Sabbath observance

This article is the outgrowth of an email I began writing to Professor Shlomo Avineri. Professor Avineri was my upstairs neighbour when I was living in Israel as a child, and I have corresponded with him over the years. You would not expect an esteemed professor to take much of an interest in a religious family that lived in his building, but he did. Indeed, I recall having long discussions with him about my beliefs. Of course, I was only ten years of age, and so it was not the basic content of what I said that interested him. In retrospect it is clear that Professor Avineri’s interest was in what he could distil from the typically exaggerated perspective of a child – the key message I was getting at home. Thus, a secular person was able to get a glimpse into that which held meaning for a religious family and how that translated into the daily life of a boy.

It is a similar spirit that I want to bring to the current impasse in Israel between the religious and secular Jews (the charedim and chilonim) vis a vis Sabbath observance. A recent article by the Washington Post describes the tension between secular and religious Jews in light of a successful petition to the Supreme Court of Israel by a court in Tel Aviv to allow a local bylaw to supersede the national prohibition against keeping malls open on Shabbat, an act typically punished with a fine. What struck me in this article was that one of the secular Jews who was interviewed, Rosa Milevsky (perhaps a distant relative?), said that going to the mall was her observance of Sabbath. The way she phrased that statement was also reflected in the judge’s ruling, cited by the same article, that everyone formulates Sabbath in accordance with their “paths and beliefs.” Obviously, further research would be necessary, but this perspective raises the possibility that mall closures are not just an inconvenience for Rosa and others but rather an imposition of a cognitive dissonance: the way some are raised, by that I mean the worldview that captivated them since they were children (tinoq she-nishba), to use a rabbinic term, is that Sabbath is kept in a certain way, but the general law stipulates that this type of observance is not only impossible but treated as a crime.

It need not be said that an alternate reality exists for religious Jews, with a corresponding level of importance attached to their observance of the day, to say the least. Much has been said about the meaning of Sabbath to Judaism, but for our purposes it will be sufficient to highlight another way in which it holds meaning, namely, the belief (found in the Talmud in Brakhot 57b) that the Sabbath represents a foretaste of the world to come. That interpretation would suggest that the future for which the Jews have been yearning for thousands of years is experienced as part of their week, and so the desecration of it threatens their perception of the Jewish future in a visceral way.
Perhaps the way foreword is by attempting to assign each level of observance an identifiable value. This process makes it easier not only to perceive the other’s point of view but also to determine, in a commutative sense, what would be lost by either side in conceding to the other and whether that loss can be recovered. Based on this line of thought, it becomes clear that restitution can be made for deprivation but not when one’s principles are violated. The experience of missing a day at the mall is measurable; the experience of seeing one’s Sabbath observance breached in public is not. Therefore, because those that are held back from enjoying those facilities, not to mention those that are forced to close malls and theatres, are being deprived of that experience or financial gain, they should be given a nominal reimbursement. The catch, however, is that the funds come exclusively from the income taxes and discernable benefits to the economy from charedim who join the workforce. That way, those that are unduly burdened by the closures are remunerated, and the charedi community will retain the status quo, provided they are willing to make the necessary sacrifice.

It is also possible that by linking the status quo of the Sabbath law to the issue of employment, there will be a greater willingness on the part of the charedi community to join the workforce. In a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud it is said that work for the community (tzibbur) is equivalent to the study if Torah. What can be a greater form of work for the sake of the community than guaranteeing that Sabbath observance is maintained!? Further, when the Talmud (in Sabbath 151b) discusses the importance of saving a life on Sabbath — even if it means violating it — it states that by doing so, the person who is saved will keep many Sabbaths. The option I have introduced also raises the prospect of many Sabbaths being kept; and the fact that less people will be engaged in full time Torah study is similarly a sacrifice for that purpose.

Some will certainly cry foul. They will say this is a chance for sinners to gain from their sin (choteh niskar). Quite the opposite is the case: it is by committing to a stricter observance that they are getting compensated. It is also worth remembering that, for Maimonides, the tools of coercion only apply when the time calls for it. Certainly the political climate calls for a more positive approach.

About the Author
Jonathan Milevsky holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Broughton Park Dialogue Group in the U.K. His book, Understanding the Evolving Meaning of Reason in David Novak's Natural Law Theory (Brill) is out later this week.
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