On September 1, 2016, I published an essay in the Times of Israel discussing the crisis around working on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway on Shabbat. I argued that if it would prevent many car accidents, and would therefore indeed be a matter of life and death – halachically called sakanat nefashot, or pikuach nefesh (saving a life) – we should definitely do this work on Shabbat. Working on it during the weekdays would create total chaos by having to close down major roads so as to make the construction of this railway possible. This would be insurmountable and even more dangerous. I further argued that this work should not be done by non-Jews – the “shabbes goy” phenomenon – since it is time to abolish this concept, which is an outgrowth of our galut (exile) experience. The time has come for us to stand on our own feet – especially in the State of Israel – and no longer be dependent on non-Jews to run a modern Jewish State.
My main argument was that Halacha demands of us, as Jews, to violate Shabbat in order to save the lives of human beings. (Yoma 85b; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat, 2:3)
At the time, I suggested turning this into a celebration and ensuring that those Jews working on the project would observe Shabbat as much as possible while working on this most holy day. Instead of asking non-Jews to take our place, let us gather as many (religious) Jews as possible to join in this undertaking and do this work in the spirit of Shabbat and Halacha. Here are some of the suggestions I had proposed:
We should organize shacks at the work sites where some people will make Kiddush and where a special Shabbat atmosphere will be created, and tasteful Shabbat meals – kept warm according to the laws of Shabbat – will be served. There will be alternate minyanim where the workers can hear the reading of the parasha (the weekly Torah portion) and say their Shabbat prayers in shifts. Participants can sing Shabbat songs, and someone can say a nice d’var Torah informing everyone of the great mitzvah they are performing by working on the holy Shabbat so as to save lives.
I suggested giving all the workers colored Shabbat helmets and asking all others who stand by to give instructions to wear nice kippot.
There should be flags and ribbons flying and large posters displayed at the work sites, proclaiming: “The people of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, observing the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for eternity.” (Shemot 31:16); “And one shall live by them [My laws]” (Vayikra 18:5) “…and not die because of them.” (Sanhedrin 74a)
In this way, we could show our fellow Israelis and the world that we respect and love Shabbat, but that it will not stand in the way of the sanctity of human life and the well-being of the State of Israel. It will actually advance our spirit and commitment to Judaism and reveal that Halacha can deal with the requirements of a modern democratic Jewish state in an unprecedented way.
Although I was harshly criticized for these suggestions, I still stand by my opinion.
More than that, I am now of the opinion that the law that demands of us to violate Shabbat in order to save the lives of human beings does not apply only to the individual but also to the community, or the State of Israel, if it is no longer able to function properly as a modern Jewish state and will otherwise run into major problems that no modern state can afford.
The great gaon (talmudic genius) Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924), former chief rabbi of Klausenburg (and close friend of Rabbis Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, known as the Meshech Chochma), is best known as the author of Dor Revi’i, his remarkable commentary on Tractate Chulin. In his introduction to this work, he discussed the institution of the Oral Torah and the most unfortunate and dangerous undertaking to codify it, which led to the ossification of Halacha. He also suggested that we broaden the concept of pikuach nefesh and apply it not only to people who would actually die if we wouldn’t violate the Shabbat, but also to people who would be robbed of all their financial assets and become so poor that they could no longer live a decent life, which may be worse than being dead (Peticha 26a).
This, I believe, also applies to the State of Israel if its economic foundation would be undermined and it could no longer function. I’m not arguing this because of one specific bridge, but because we can be sure that more and more cases like this will occur in the future, and the State of Israel will pay an enormous price. Its citizens could be badly harmed, and the state could ultimately collapse if these matters don’t get solved according to criteria of a living Halacha.
Right now this may sound farfetched, but we have seen great empires collapse when they were unable to ensure that they could function as full-fledged “modern states” and develop accordingly.
Obviously, such violations of Shabbat must be kept to a minimum and may be considered only when they really help to save lives and protect the state from disintegrating. Opening stores on Shabbat – if it’s nothing more than making life a little more convenient for some citizens – does not fall into this category. But when issues of great public need are at stake, another approach is required and that may be included in the new criteria of pikuach nefesh.
There should be a governmental board consisting of experts and broad-minded, daring rabbis who are prepared to stick out their necks and who have great halachic knowledge to decide on these matters.
To my utter joy, my suggestions were (partially) implemented by those who are now building a huge bridge over the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. The building of this bridge requires the highway to be closed, which on weekdays will lead to absolute chaos with detrimental consequences.
Here you see a short clip of a man wearing a helmet, making Kiddush Friday night while working on the bridge, and in that way bringing the spirit of Shabbat to his co-workers who all answer Amen to his brachot. Yes, I know he was reading the Kiddush from his iPod and that the man who made the clip used his iPod as well, something I would have liked to prevent. But they got the message, and that’s reason enough for us to be most joyful, even if the situation is not yet perfect.
This brings me to another worrisome issue: the Shalva Band’s participation in the Israeli singing competition that will determine who will represent Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv this year. Shalva, a magnificent organization founded in 1990 by Kalman and Malki Samuels, an Orthodox couple, has become a world-class institute that provides a range of services for people with disabilities and their families. This band, comprised of young adults with disabilities, has won the hearts of all Israelis, including the judges. (To watch one of their performances, click here). Dena and Annael are blind, Yair and Tal have Down syndrome, Yosef has Williams syndrome, and Guy is visually impaired. Band and music director Shai Ben-Shushan (percussionist) formed the group when he began volunteering at Shalva following a long recovery from a serious head injury sustained in the IDF’s Special Forces combat. And Sarah, daughter of Shalva founders Kalman and Malki Samuels, enhances the band’s performance with her acoustic guitar. Despite their challenges, Shalva Band’s performances are absolutely staggering, and their chances of winning are very high. They have already advanced to the finals.
There is only one major problem: Shabbat observance. All participants in the Eurovision Song Contest will have to be at rehearsals on Saturday for the competition that will take place that evening after Shabbat. There are many technical issues involved that are hard to overcome, far beyond what the observer might be aware of. A “Shabbat-friendly microphone” is the least of all problems!
One of the most popular Israeli pop stars, Omer Adam, who had 51 million YouTube views last year with his song Shnei Meshugaim (“Two Crazy People”), turned down an invitation to perform at the Eurovision contest, since it would involve violating Shabbat. He is not religiously observant but makes a point of not working on Shabbat.
We can only stand in awe of Omer Adam, who understands that there is something called Jewish pride, and that Shabbat is too important to be violated under these conditions. The same is true about the Shalva Band.
However much money Israel may make from hosting Eurovision, it is absolutely wrong and shameful that Israel’s leadership will allow violation of Shabbat on this occasion. It is self-evident that this has nothing to do with pikuach nefesh. Israel should put its foot down and cancel the Eurovision Song Contest if its organizers are not prepared to find a solution so that Israel can keep its head high and show the world what it means to stand for one’s principles; to protect its main religious institution, which for thousands of years has kept the Jewish people alive against all odds; and to allow the Shalva Band to perform. The world would be deeply impressed, and that is worth more than all the money in the world. Many secular Israelis would fully agree.
It’s hard to overstate what would happen if the Shalva band were to win and represent Israel at the Eurovision. It would give all special-needs children throughout the world a huge boost. Israel would be lauded for its huge accomplishment, and the sanctity of Shabbat would shine for all to see.
Israel has grounded EL AL on Shabbat, and every year on Yom Kippur all of Ben Gurion Airport is closed; even foreign planes are not allowed to land or take off. Let us make it clear to all the Eurovision organizers that they must act in the very same spirit. And if they need to bend the rules so as not to violate Shabbat, then they must bend them. We Jews have bent all the rules of history throughout 4,000 years, and have stayed alive as a result, against all odds. So let us do it again.
Rumor has it that there is still hope for things to work out well for Shalva and that if they win, the “powers that be” will agree to compromise with regard to rehearsals.
We are reminded of the words of the great Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“He who wants to enter the holiness of the [Sabbath] day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else….
The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time….
The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals, and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn…” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951] pp. 13, 29, 8).
So, Yes to the Ayalon Bridge, and No to the Eurovision Song Contest if it means that Shabbat will be violated!
Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond—for which I apologize—but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.
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Nathan Lopes Cardozo