A Modern Orthodox friend of mine who is a loyal Yankee fan cringed the other day when I asked if he might leave a TV on to watch the opener of the American League Championship Series, with the Bombers facing Texas in Arlington.
"What kind of message would that send to the kids?" he asked. He’s right, of course. In an observant home, making exceptions on Shabbat, even if it doesn’t mean turning on the TV after sundown, would send a message that some earthly pursuits supersede the day of rest. Yeshiva tuition down the drain, slippery slope and all that. But the discussion brought back memories of the early 70s, when my parents made the difficult decision to become Shomer Shabbat and kosher (inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane, but that’s a story for another day.)
We asked our local rabbi if it was OK to leave the TV on a timer on Shabbat and he didn’t say no. Looking back, I think he made a wise decision, figuring that since we were new to observance it might be too much of a radical change to give up everything, and that we’d eventually become more strict as we settled in to the lifestyle. And so we were perhaps the only house on our heavily Orthodox block on East 9th Street in Midwood to have a flickering blue light in the bedroom window on Friday night. After Shabbat dinner it was the CBS Friday night line-up: "The Incredible Hulk," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Dallas." My parents would watch the movie of the week or whatever in their room. Because we couldn’t change the channel, we’d sometimes keep three TVs on, one for each broadcast network, to cover the bases. (This was pre-cable; today you’d need about 18 sets.)
Of course, this did send the wrong message. Even from a non-religious standpoint it was a missed opportunity for quality family time. And it was not in the spirit of Shabbat, as visitors often pointed out. I don’t blame my parents for this mistake, since they were new to the whole thing and never attended yeshiva or observed Shabbat as kids. The good news is that and at some point around high school we stopped doing it. I wish I could say it was out of a greater sense of commitment, but it was likely a more technological than spiritual advance: We bought a VCR.
These days, it’s impossible to imagine allowing the TV on in my own house on Shabbat. With the quality of programming steadily slipping, especially on the networks, it’s easy to avoid temptation. (One concession we did make was on New Year’s Eve of 2000, the big Y2K, a Friday night, when we had dinner with friends who were not Sabbath observant, and took advantage of the opportunity to witness history, reasoning that their TV would be on if we were there or not.) My youngest wasn’t born yet, and the older two barely remember. They’ve never once asked to leave a TV on or even complained about not being able to watch. Perhaps a bit too lenient on other things we may be, but Shabbat has always been non-negotiable.
For those of us who missed Friday night’s game, with a late comeback by the Yanks in the ninth to take a (short-lived) lead in the series, there will be plenty of thrills to come on weeknights in this postseason. But looking back, it’s also good to know that wrong messages inadvertently sent to kids don’t always have to take root.