Tuesday, January 07, 2003


This past weekend marked 19 years to the calendar date since I first landed in Israel as an intrepid tourist. I had graduated college a few months before and set out for a long-anticipated six-month jaunt around Europe.

Unfortunately, I started my trip in December and, as I soon discovered, Europe can be quite cold in the winter. So, I decided to come to Israel for a few months to chill out, so to speak, and wait for that proverbial springtime in Paris. I even filled out the forms to volunteer on some nice warm Negev kibbutz where I imagined myself picking juicy watermelons by the dawn’s early light.

I arrived in Jerusalem on a Thursday and immediately set out to visit the Western Wall. While there, I was greeted by Meir Shuster, one of the prominent Rabbis at the time who set up English-speaking young people with Shabbat hospitality.

Now you have to keep in mind my background: not much. I didn’t know bubkes from a traditional Shabbat, but I had heard that nothing was open on the weekend in Jerusalem. So, this seemed like a good way to ensure I at least got fed.

Come Friday night, I trekked off across Jerusalem to join my hosts, the Witt family, in the mostly ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mattersdorf. Everything was new to me – the songs, the blessings, the black hats and coats, the sheer number of kids (I don’t think anyone where I grew up had more than three). I spent much of the night trying to figure out how to keep the cloth kippa that the Witts had loaned me from falling off every time I moved my head. (I would only later learn about hair clips.)

Over the years, my observance of Shabbat has waxed and waned. I have been quite stringent at times, but I have also driven, watched TV, turned lights on and off, and even cooked. But never in the 19 years since that first Friday night in Jerusalem have I worked on Shabbat.

That’s why Hillel Halkin’s article “How Modern is a 3,000-Year Regression?” in that appeared last month in the Jerusalem Post spoke to me as it did. Halkin was writing in response to demonstrations against the recent opening of a mall in Kfar Saba. In the article, he praises the concept of Shabbat, even though he himself doesn’t observe it, for giving not only our bodies, but our minds a rest from work.

“A Shabbat on which you can’t buy, or sell, or go to the bank, or place an order with your stock-broker, or get a bill in the mail, or have to make a financial decision,” he writes, “is, in theory at least, a day off not only from work but from the economic worries and calculations that gnaw at us, sometimes pitilessly, the rest of the week.”

Here, here. Jewish tradition knew what it was doing when it came up with the then-radical concept of creating the world’s first six-day work week, in contrast to our status as seven-day-and-night-a-week slaves in Egypt. And it displayed even greater insight by legislating that our one day off a week be mentally free of back-breaking work as well. This is not a religious issue. It’s an essential element of how we stay humane.

The concept of the day off came under fire a few years ago. At the height of dot.com fever, I had a conversation with a hi-tech colleague whose Jerusalem-based company was looking for a U.S.-based CEO. One of the CEO candidates they were interviewing commented that he didn’t understand how Israel could ever hope to compete in the global market.

“You’ve got to work 24/7 to keep up,” the candidate earnestly told my colleague. “How can you do that if you shut down completely one day every week!” Dot.com executives and their venture capitalist cronies had become the new Pharaohs.

Somehow we do compete, though. And I don’t know of any companies here that have gone out of business strictly because of Shabbat observance. Indeed, it’s one of the things I love about Israel: even though probably 90% of the company I work for now is not religiously observant, there has never been any pressure, no expectation, that staff work on Shabbat. Holidays are just as sacrosanct.

In the States, by contrast, leaving early for Shabbat was a real tircha, especially in the winter when Shabbat can start as early as 4:00 PM. Oh, the people you work with profess to understand and respect you, but I will never forget when we were under a deadline and my development team had to work late into Friday night and then again Saturday morning but I had to leave.

With the pressure mounting, Tom, the project lead, finally broke down and screamed at me. “Clearly, you’re just not committed to this project. Otherwise you would be here with us.” In the heat of the moment, with Shabbat breathing down my neck, I couldn’t explain it to him.

Beyond that, I totally understood where it was coming from. He was right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the new-old concept of work was demanding that someone, anyone, not just me, had to work 24/7.

By sheer coincidence, we made aliyah three months later.

In Israel, Shabbat, like everything else in this part of the world, has also taken on a political context. For some, it has become a way to impose observance on an antagonistic public; for others it’s a means of “breaking free” from the shackles of what is perceived as a hopelessly outdated tradition. The Kfar Saba Mall that Halkin writes about is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions open on Shabbat throughout the country.

Several Israeli political groups – among them the dovish religious Meimad party – have tried to forge a distinction between shopping on Shabbat and entertainment. According to this line of reasoning, entertainment is OK because it’s in the general spirit of Shabbat. Sitting with friends at a cafĂ© sipping a cappuccino, slurping an ice cream on the beach with your kids, even an outing to the movies are all ways of relaxing.

Serious shopping, on the other hand, necessarily forces you to think about money and budget. Will that cute tank top I’m considering be appropriate to wear to the office tomorrow? Can we afford the fancy floor tiles or should we be sensible and opt for the plain ones right now?

Immigrants party Yisrael B’Aliyah has taken a different approach, supporting moving the weekend in Israel from Friday-Saturday as it is now to Saturday-Sunday. Although it’s not part of the platform, many have expressed hope that this could turn Sunday into a day for cross-denominational shopping, while reserving Saturday for more Shabbat-like relaxation and entertainment activities.

I have no illusions that the Saturday shopping public would suddenly lay down the consumer gauntlet and defer such material pleasures to Sunday. In the U.S., as in most of the Western world, the steady pace of consumerism has long made both days of the weekend sacred for shopping. But the very fact that the discussion even comes up here is one of the things that makes Israel such a unique place.

But then, what did you expect? After all, we came up with the concept of the weekend in the first place.

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