The Gray Area

I love Shabbes. I light the candles and it happens. A palpable sense of holiness and peace steals over my household to be felt on that one day alone. I love the holy little bubble Shabbes creates in my week as all the beeping devices are shut down, and so too the world at large. But there is an awkward gray area to my Sabbath observance that begins on Friday morning and ends on Sunday, bright and early.

It works like this: it’s Saturday night. Shabbes is over in Israel, but because of the time difference, it’s still Shabbes in New York. I log onto Facebook, think of an incredibly witty riposte and type it in as a comment to a friend’s status update.

Once I do so, one of my friends in the States may comment or click the like button on my comment. With that comment or click of the like button, that person has transgressed the Sabbath, at least according to my lights. And my comment was the catalyst for that transgression. That makes me at least somewhat culpable for that person’s act of Chilul Shabbat (Sabbath desecration), even if they couldn’t care less.

A Stumbling Block

I do not think of this as an added stringency. To me, it’s about not transgressing the prohibition of “Lo liten michshol lifnei iver” or “Do not provide a stumbling block for the blind.”

The irony of this is that in effect, I’m protecting my friends who couldn’t care less: my Jewish friends who don’t observe the Sabbath. I don’t think twice about emailing non-Jewish friends and Sabbath-observant Jewish friends. The prohibitions don’t apply to my non-Jewish friends and I don’t worry that my Sabbath-observant friends are going to open my messages on Shabbes.

In addition to Facebook, there is another part of my life that is affected by this somewhat self-imposed gray area. I am very proud of the volunteer work I do for JewishGen, a website devoted to Jewish family research and the largest of its kind. This is work I do as payback for the wealth of information I found on my family at JewishGen, free of charge, going back to when my family got its first PC in the year 2000. I stumbled upon JewishGen almost by accident and was stunned when I put my mother’s unusual maiden surname, KOPELMAN, into a database there and found other people researching the same name.

At some point I was approached by Jewishgen’s list manager, Dick Plotz about becoming a moderator for the JewishGen General Discussion Group a general forum for those researching their Jewish family roots. I was flattered to be asked to step into this position (I still see this as an honor!) and began training under one of the moderators who was active at that time. I turned out to have a knack for this work. Today I handle the support desk for the Discussion Group.

Weird Weekend Idiosyncrasy

I am the only so-called (for want of a better word) Orthodox Jew on the moderators’ list and the other moderators have learned that I won’t answer correspondence from mid-Friday morning Israel time until Sunday morning Israel time. Sometimes I think they don’t quite “get it” but they try to respect my weird weekend idiosyncrasy as best they can.

Come most Saturday nights, my inbox is overflowing with the messages the moderators are sending to each other, back and forth. While during the week, it’s mostly business, on the weekends, the “mods” loosen up a bit, becoming positively jolly with weekend freedom. They chat up a storm trading jokes and wisecracks.

It’s good for bonding, I guess, and lightens up the atmosphere. It is not unusual for me to find 25 emails from the moderator’s list alone on a Saturday night. I don’t answer these messages, since it is still Shabbes for them—for the moderators. I just read and make note of anything that will need my attention come Sunday morning.

For over a decade now, this has been the pattern of my weekends. But lately, I find that it hurts my Yiddishe neshoma (Jewish soul) to see all those emails on a Saturday night and what they represent. Ditto Facebook.

I have overseas Jewish friends who are very active in combating anti-Israel propaganda on Facebook. They don’t take a break over the Sabbath for these activities. I look at the time stamps of these postings and shake my head. It makes me sad. I can’t help but think they’re missing the point.

It reminds me of growing up in America and never really fitting in. The word “church” always came before “synagogue” in a sentence.” We had to bring a note to get out of school for the High Holidays. Christmas was everywhere you turned in December. Shabbes was an aberration of a small group of people who remained a curiosity to their neighbors.

But in Israel it is so vastly different. In Israel, Shabbes is everywhere I turn. All of my neighbors are Sabbath observers. There are no cars in the streets. The phone doesn’t ring. All devices are shut down. Not just in my home, but in every home.

I know it’s not like that in every place in Israel, but it is just like that in my town and in many other places in Israel. It is certainly something worthy of preservation. There is no peace like the peace that descends on my town and home on Shabbes. It fills my heart full to the brim each week and gets me through the worst of a bad week, just knowing that Shabbes is around the corner.

If only my friends and acquaintances experienced that, even once, could they ever ignore it again? Would they blithely continue to chit-chat about everything and nothing at all by email and on Facebook when they could experience a taste of real Shabbes peace? The kind I get to experience every single week?

It occurs to me then that my gray area illustrates a little microcosm of the world and a difficult little lesson in tolerance and intolerance. My non-observant Jewish acquaintances will never quite grok my avoidance of electronic devices and my insistence on following those old haggard rules when I could be free to do anything and everything I liked. And I will never understand why they insist on remaining connected to electronic devices when they could be free to experience the peace that comes only with a real Shabbes observed just as my ancestors observed it for thousands of years.

Shades of Gray

The gray area, you see, is all about perspective: one man’s noose is another man’s freedom.

And vice versa.


About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for