A Gentile’s Guide to Cheating the Shabbat
The Shabbat is a day of rest and contemplation. If you are observant and Jewish, this means you get one day a week to catch up on your spiritual reflection. If you are unclear on how to do so in this fast-paced modern world, fret not. The Talmud set down precise rules for what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath. These 39 categories of activity—called Melacha—cannot occur between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. The trick is in obeying the spirit of rules established long before every conceivable modern convenience.
Take just two Melachas, 36 and 37. In the age of electricity, these bans on fire (kindling and extinguishing, respectively) have generated all sorts of thorny debates over interpretation. Does a light bulb violate the ban? How about a battery-operated hearing aid?
The variety of opinions is as wide as the range of options. While The Council of Torah Sages outlawed the Internet, The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists offers podcasts. Let’s be honest, there is no seamless way to merge Halachic Judaism with modern life. But there are workarounds:
1. SHABBAT PHONE
It’s Saturday morning. The phone rings. You’re about to answer it when suddenly you remember: It’s the Sabbath. Your hand hovers in indecision over the receiver. Maybe a hurt child needs a blood transfusion. Perhaps a planet is hurtling towards the Earth’s atmosphere and someone is calling to beckon you to shelter. Or maybe it’s just your wife, asking if you taped last’s night’s Undercover Boss. But how will you know if you can’t answer the frigging phone?
The Zomet Institute—an Israeli research institute “dedicated to seamlessly merging Halachic Judaism with modern life”—has invented a Shabbat telephone. Instead of completing an electrical circuit, this nifty device barges in on an existing circuit, thus bypassing Melacha 38, the ban on completing.
2. SHABBAT GOY
Even on the Shabbat, prescriptions must be filled, switches flipped, heaters fixed, stoves lit. But asking for direct help is forbidden, so this service relies on hints and innuendo and lots of goodwill made toward non-Jews. There can’t be any direct quid pro quo, beyond a friendly smile and/or some pastries. Dependence on non-Jews runs counter to the self-reliance that Israel was founded on, which is why there really are no famous ex-Shabbat Goys in the Holy Land. But America is full of such ex-helpers: young Elvis, James Cagney, Colin Powell, and Louie Armstrong (according to darker corners of the internet, a young Obama was a Shabbat Goy, perhaps moonlighting from his mosque duties in Indonesia.)
3. SHABBAT ELEVATOR
Sabbath elevators are regular elevators programmed to stop at every floor during the Sabbath, removing the need to push buttons. They are the flying Dutchmen of vertical transportation equipment, the creepiest of Sabbath workarounds. You know that weird feeling you get when your elevator stops at a floor and nobody’s there? Imagine if this happened on every floor. Spooky.