Shabbos Goy a la Mode

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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Not being a very ritually observant Jew, I needed the Home & Garden section of the April 9 New York Times, to which my attention was called by my wife, to teach me a new Jewish term I didnt know. This is “Sabbath mode,” and it has been around, so I subsequently learned, since 1997, when Whirlpool Corporation, the manufacturer of KitchenAid products, introduced the first “Sabbath-mode” oven.

A Sabbath-mode appliance, for the benefit of those of you who are as ignorant as I was, is one that, while it runs on electricity, is considered halachically permissible for Orthodox Jews to operate even though opening or closing an electric circuit on the day of rest is forbidden by Orthodox law. The reason for the prohibition is that electricity is considered the equivalent of fire, the lighting or extinguishing of which on the Sabbath is strictly enjoined by the Bible.

An appliance set for Sabbath mode operates in one of two ways. The first is by rendering inoperative an electrical feature. Thus, for instance, a Sabbath-mode-programmed refrigerator deactivates the electric bulb that ordinarily switches on when the refrigerator’s door is opened. The second way is by severing the direct connection between an electrical feature and the appliance’s user. To take the example of a refrigerator again, normally, its compressor and cooling system are switched on by a thermostat when the internal temperature rises to a certain level, which again makes opening the door forbidden because this lets in warmer air that affects the thermostat. When a refrigerator is put in Sabbath mode, however, the thermostat is disconnected and the compressor is linked to a timer that turns it on and off at regular intervals, unaffected by temperature.

Of course, Jewish law had its “Sabbath-mode” procedures long before the term itself was invented. The legendary Shabbos goy, or “Sabbath goy,” of Eastern Europe, the gentile who performed acts forbidden to a Jew on the Sabbath, is one of the oldest of these. Here, too, the procedure depended on decoupling the Shabbos goy’s act from the Jew’s instrumentality. Although a Jew was allowed to benefit from what a gentile did on the Sabbath, he was not permitted to be the direct cause of it by saying things like, “Please light a fire in the fireplace,” or, “Do be so kind as to shovel the snow from the front door.” Rather, the gentile either had to be told what to do in advance, before the Sabbath began, or respond to a technically noncausative hint, such as, “It’s awfully cold in this room,” or, “There’s so much snow in the street that it’s blocking the front door.” This didn’t always work, and Jewish lore is full of funny stories about Shabbos goys who had difficulty understanding what was wanted of them.

The idea of substituting a mechanical contrivance for the Shabbos goy is also not new. So-called Shabbos clocks, which can be set to perform such tasks as turning off the lights after a family has finished Friday night dinner and gone to bed, go back to 19th-century Europe and were the subject of rabbinical rulings at the time. They worked by means of a revolving disk that alternately forms and breaks an electric contact, and refinements of them still serve as the basis of many more sophisticated Sabbath-mode products. Nowadays, the term Shabbos clock is often used to refer to an alarm clock that turns itself off after ringing, so that the awakened sleeper needn’t do this himself.

Also going back a long way, at least as far as the 1950s, is the Shabbos elevator, which runs all the time and automatically stops at every floor, so there is no need to press a button when stepping into it. Since getting to the 19th floor of a 22-story building by means of a Shabbos elevator is like traveling a mile in bumper-to-bumper traffic, most buildings that have these elevators also have the ordinary kind. In Israel, Shabbos elevators are known as ma’aliyot shel Shabbat and are common in many hotels that cater to observant clienteles. In his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character),” the great American physicist Richard Feynman has an amusing chapter, called “Is Electricity Fire?” that starts with his first encounter with a Shabbos elevator, when he was a graduate student.

Terms like Shabbos goy, Shabbos clock and Shabbos elevator have a folksy Jewish ring. “Sabbath mode,” on the other hand, is commercial-sounding through and through. It is also, when used, as it commonly is, as an unhyphenated qualifier — for example, “Sabbath mode refrigerator” — in violation of the rules of English punctuation, which call for hyphenating all adjectives fused out of two words. (Since there is no such thing as a “mode refrigerator,” “mode” cannot stand by itself unlinked by a hyphen to “Sabbath.”) Yet, as it has now become the preferred term of many large appliance companies, like General Electric Co., Frigidaire, Electrolux, Whirlpool, Maytag and Viking, it is here to stay. There are already numerous varieties of Sabbath-mode refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers and hot-water heaters on the market, and no doubt we will soon be seeing Sabbath-mode egg poachers, hair-dryers and Jacuzzis. The once honorable job of the Shabbes goy, already rarely encountered in today’s world, will have been, like so many other traditional occupations, permanently eliminated by automation.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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