As Winter Falls, a Time To Learn From the Orthodox

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As daylight-saving time ends and the winter approaches in earnest, Shabbat begins to be inconvenient again. In the northeastern United States, it now begins at four, even three in the afternoon Friday, early enough to encroach on the workday, and render the day a little bit useless. For families with children, the Sabbath now starts so early as to interfere with school — not to mention the ever-widening array of after-school activities, from test prep to tennis, tutoring to therapy.

No surprise, then, that in most congregations, Friday night services begin well after the onset of the Sabbath — just as, in the summer, they began well before it. In America, we need our prayer services to fit our schedules; it’s hard enough coordinating multiple iCals and Palm Pilots without religious observance being a temporal wildcard.

In Orthodox communities, however, people somehow seem to manage. There, because of the belief that the Sabbath, with its various restrictions on activity, begins and ends according to the sun, Shabbat really does begin at 4 p.m., or 8 p.m., or whenever the stars and sun do their daily dance. Orthodox Shabbat feels very different in the winter from the summer: In January, Saturday afternoon is abrupt, with barely enough time to nap and eat a “third meal,” which often consists of the bare minimum: bread. In June, the day lingers on, seeming never to end, and ruining any plans to go to the theater Saturday night. And yes, it messes with your schedule.

As the title of this column suggests, I think that’s a good thing. I think all of us who observe the Sabbath — not necessarily according to Jewish law, or Halacha, with no electricity or cooking, but in some way setting aside one day a week for being human beings instead of human doings — should learn from the Orthodox, and let our schedules be subject to the stars once a week.

To start with, I like that winter Shabbat feels different from summer Shabbat. The variation connects me to the cycles of the earth, reminds me that Judaism is an earth-based religion, tied not to urban convenience but to the rhythms of the seasons and the sun. Shabbat is meant to feel different at different times in the year — just as we are. We are earth-creatures (adam), made of and affected by the earth (adamah), and our religion knows that. If nothing else, the variation in tone also keeps the ritual fresh.

Second, and perhaps more important, letting Shabbat be Shabbat, instead of a schedule item to fit into the weekly grid, reorders priorities in a way that is spiritually and communally important. On an individual level, it forces me to set my own priorities straight. As readers of this column know, I work a lot, in several different fields, and without the forced interruption of the Sabbath, I might just work through the weekend, too. Surrendering to the schedule of Shabbat turns off the work machine, which is necessary for my better parts — the more loving, more human parts — to open. Jewish practice, whether religious or secular, isn’t meant to cater to our preferences; it’s meant to shape those preferences, educate us to be more ethical or more holy. It can’t do that when Judaism is itself molded around the whims and predilections of our agenda.

Communally, we’ve all seen how the de-prioritization of religion and/or Jewish culture devalues the thing itself. How seriously are children supposed to take Jewishness when Jewish observance is subordinated to convenience? And how is a community supposed to cohere when we are all on different schedules, sandwiching the Jewish bits in between divergent wants and needs that pull us in a hundred different directions? Sociologists have observed that the decline of Conservative Jewish community can in part be traced to that movement’s decision to allow driving on Shabbat — a decision that spelled the end of the “Jewish neighborhood” and the fragmenting of Jewish community in the suburbs. Well, neighborhoods are temporal as well as spatial. If Shabbat is, as Heschel said, a “cathedral in time,” it’s a community center, as well. We dismantle it at our peril.

Now, none of this is meant to deny the importance of summertime family services or wintertime davening, which starts a little bit later. The former lets families put their kids to bed on time, and the latter lets harried working people rest and shower before heading off to shul. These are good things. Judaism is all about meeting people where they are — it doesn’t reside in heaven, and doesn’t legislate for angels. The question, then, is one of extent: Are we accommodating, or are we bending over backward? Are we making life easier, or too easy?

But neither am I advocating an Orthodox, or even necessarily religious, lifestyle. While my own religious practice resembles an Orthodox one — except for an open celebration of sexuality, and a few compromises around the edges — my theology is extremely un-orthodox, and my affiliation is nondenominational. The title of this column is “learning from the Orthodox,” not “learning how to be Orthodox.”

Indeed, all the foregoing reasons and rationales are, to an Orthodox Jew, somewhat superfluous: If God commanded the Sabbath observance, then it’s not so important what costs or benefits we happen to perceive. Indeed, it can be counterproductive even to think this way, because what happens if the benefits don’t outweigh the costs? Personally, however, I’m interested in religion on functional, not mythical, terms: What does it do, how does it transform, in what ways does it loosen, and bind. If Shabbat works, in the ways I’ve described, I’m not so concerned with what God commanded and didn’t. If your Sabbath consists of reading a good book Friday evening, and it accomplishes the goals you’ve set for it, then I don’t care what Good Book you read, or whether you bless the kiddush wine afterward. What matters is the result.

Even if your practice is Orthodox in form, to me one of the great gifts of the Jewish tradition is how little it cares what you believe, in contrast with how you act. Today, under the influence of faith-based Christianity, many Orthodox rabbis suggest that certain beliefs — the divinity of the Torah, the election of the Jews — are litmus tests for whether you’re a kosher Jew or not. But this is an innovation. Opinions do matter a little bit, but talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.

In fact, the classical distinction between “good” Jews and not-so-good Jews was not believer and heretic, but shomer shabbos (someone who keeps, literally “guards,” the Sabbath) and mechalel shabbos (someone who desecrates it). I won’t go so far as to suggest that when we “fit Shabbat in” and flatten its natural variations, we desecrate the Sabbath itself. But we’re not quite protecting it, either. More important, to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am, we’re not letting it protect us.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different.
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.