Monday, November 14, 2011

A different view of Shabbos

["Wow, now that's going to cause trouble" post of the day, at Life in Israel]

Jewish literature is replete with diverse praises of Shabbos for its regenerative and social elements:
• It's a day of rest from creativity, time to curl up with a good book, time to recharge.
• It's an opportunity to connect with spouses and children and siblings and friends.
• It's a chance to gather as a religious community, for study and prayer and – of course – kiddush.

Just look at the song מה ידידות, an educational poem traced to 11th century Germany, which describes the day as a time for eating, singing, learning with children, sleeping and enjoying.

But here's a description that doesn't get much airtime: Shabbos is a day to retreat from everything and everyone, and communicate with Gd. No family, no friends, no books, no garrulous kiddush.


Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 15:3
אמר רבי חנינא מדוחק התירו לשאול שלום בשבת אמר רבי חייא בר בא רבי שמעון בן יוחי כד הוה חמי לאימיה משתעיא סגין הוה אמר לה אימא שובתא היא
Rabbi Chanina said: It was only with difficulty that they permitted greeting people on Shabbat. Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said: When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw his mother speaking a great deal, he would say, 'Mother, it's Shabbos!'

Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah, Shabbos 23:2
הטעם שאסרו למנותם מן הכתב שמא יקרא אגרות בשבת, וזה אסור, שכל זולת ספרי הנבואה ופירושיהם אסור לקרותו לא בשבת ולא ביום טוב, ואפילו היה בו דברי חכמה ומדע.
One may read nothing on Shabbat or Yom Tov, beyond the books of the Prophets and their explanations. This even applies to works of wisdom and knowledge.

Lest one think these represent extreme views of pietists, the former is codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:1, the latter in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:17. [The latter source does add the caveat that some disagree and permit reading 'books of wisdom'.]

On one hand, I like this; I need to spend more time thinking about Gd. If Gd created me, and the purpose of my existence is to satisfy Divine expectations [in social relations as well as spiritual development, of course], shouldn't I set aside a regular time to contemplate that relationship? And might that go some way toward helping me feel Gd's presence on an on-going basis?

On the other hand: If I were to dedicate my weekly Shabbos 'time-out' for this sort of monkhood, when would I spend time on all of those other necessities – recharging, family, community?

But that other hand may not be a legitimate point. A person who doesn't have a knife can't decide that his fork is a knife – it's a fork. A person who doesn't have money can't decide to use someone else's funds as his own. And a person who hasn’t set aside time for recharging, family and community can't decide to use Gd's time for those purposes.

And it may not be the point at all; does my concern for recharging, family and community simply mask a fear that I couldn't spend an entire day contemplating my relationship with Gd?

Something to think about.


  1. I actually agree with this, at least partially. The fact that davening is so much longer on Shabbat than weekdays forces everyone down this path to some extent (unless someone spends the whole service talking to his neighbour...). Likewise I try to spend significantly longer on Torah study on Shabbat than I manage on weekdays.

    That said, I admit I can not go as far as the sources you quote and cut out relaxation entirely. If I spend hours davening and studying Torah and do not get to spend a little time with a novel (etc.), I do feel (a) exhausted (which might not be the idea) and (b) a little short-changed.

    Re: the Rambam quote: am I misreading it or, by specifying reading "sifrei ha-nevuah", is he prohibiting studying both Gemarah and Chumash on Shabbat? Or does Chumash count as "nevuah" in this context?

  2. To the Rambam Torah law is for personal perfection-not social benefit. Only the level of Natural Law instituted by Abraham the Patriarch had the goal of human flourishing.
    however it seems to me that the Rambam must have held that much of natural law was incorporated into Torah Law. But I don't think things like Shabat would be considered natural law to the Rambam.
    (though you would have to try to square things in his account of the sabians with his account of reasons for the mitzvot)

    To interpret something like Shabat as being for social benefit would be dangerous to the Rambam --not just because it is false but also because it would be in danger of missing the intermediate step that was necessary to guard against the a doctrine very close to modern Hasidut. To the Rambam without the middle step of natural law, the Torah itself could easily be mixed up with the theology of the Sabians. (Who worshiped the god who fills the universe and all worlds, not the God who is transcendent from the universe.

  3. Daniel-
    Thanks for commentng. Re: Rambam - See Rashi to the mishnah printed on Shabbat 115a; he seems to exclude כתובים, specifically, lest one miss the shiur in the beit midrash.

    Must admit I'm not clear on where you are headed here.

  4. "And a person who hasn’t set aside time for recharging, family and community can't decide to use Gd's time for those purposes."

    I think God might be ok with using shabbat to recharge self and community.

    The Tur OC 287 seems fine with nichum aveilim and bikur cholim. In spite of the problems of doing that on shabbat, there's a verbal run around, since it's so important.

    And the Tur OC 290, after encouraging physical enjoyment of fruits and delicacies, allows for a nap. If I can nap, I can do things other than reviewing Mikra.

    I think I'm fine using shabbat to recharge.

  5. Melech-
    To your specific cite - That source regarding bikur cholim and nichum aveilim is precisely my point - there is a need to justify it, because the default is non-socializing. The eating/drinking/napping aren't about socializing.

    But to the general issue - I have a very hard time reading the Mind of Gd. I don't trust personal instinct, particularly when I have a vested interest in a particular result. (And when don't I?) All I have to go on is Torah, which is what leads me to write a post like this one.

  6. The issue is socializing on shabbat?
    I'm not seeing a problem. And I'm not seeing it in Orach Chaim 307:1.
    Aderaba, Orach Chaim 307:12 seems to assume inviting guests for migdanot is normal.

  7. Melech -
    Do you see the comments there about increasing empty speech?
    My point is not that every source speaks with one voice, only that we have sources that argue for reduced conversation and an inward focus.