The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Journal Watch

Journal Watch

The Talmud — and everybody else — ponders the puzzling discrepancy between the two formulations in the Chumash with respect to the Sabbath. One iteration of the Ten Commandments (or “Articles”) in the Chumash uses the word shamor (“keep, guard”), while another uses zachor (“remember”) to describe the broad Sabbath requirement. These two locutions have been midrashically interpreted in different ways, in the broad range of halachic details that the Torah places under rubric of Shabbat.

That the Sabbath is broad and deep, and that it tells us everything about Jews and about Jewish peoplehood, is illumined in a brilliant review-essay by Bar-Ilan’s Elliott Horowitz, “Fourth and Long: Presenting (and Resenting) the Sabbath” (The Jewish Quarterly Review, Summer, 2007). The essay is four-square within Horowitz’s incisive idiosyncratic “take” on religious traditions, in this case (in the words of a 19th-century Christian traveler to the Holy Land) “how the Jews manage on their Sabbath day,” beginning with carrying and walking long distances —biblically forbidden activities as being “creative activity” (melachah, as opposed to avodah, “work”) and ending with sex and other matters. Horowitz’s eponymous “fourth and long” — the metaphor from American football, signifying a long distance that is traversed with difficulty — is an apt one for the eruv and other ways around carrying-and-walking strictures. “Fourth and long” is at the same time a code word for the attitudes of non-Jews toward Jews, whose traditional practices the non-Jews viewed as strange or worse. Horowitz colorfully recounts how early Christian travelers to the Holy Land did not know what to make of Jewish practices, and how more recent pilgrims — including many Jews — don’t have a clue either!

Horowitz’s “Hail Mary” pass of four books by both Jews and non-Jews, scholarly and popular, takes Journal Watcher on a journey through Sabbath observance in many eras. The article is more than an essay on four fine books; Horowitz in effect “reviews” virtually everything that has been written on the Sabbath over the past 400 years. His exploration of the Sabbath — eruvim, cooking practices, sex on the Sabbath, holiness and secularism — turns out to be nothing less than a tour de force excursus on the Jewish character itself. A touchdown!

Into the terrain seeded by Horowitz comes Stanford’s Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, with “The Political Symbolism of the Eruv” (Jewish Social Studies, Spring/Summer, 2005). Politics and sociology come together for Fonrobert’s exploration of the eruv, the device used to transform a neighborhood into an intentional community by circumscribing it with a ritual structure. Fonrobert’s claim is that the very intent of the eruv is unification of the community; “it is designed to achieve a degree of common intent . . . [T]he fact that the non-Jew agrees to the symbolic interaction ultimately reflects his or her acknowledgement and even support of the legitimate presence of a Jewish community in the neighborhood.”

Fonrobert’s political analysis of the eruv is subtle: Nationalism, she reminds us, assumes sovereign control over territory. The eruv, however, while it constructs a “collective identity” with respect to space, does so in the absence of any form of sovereignty over that space; quite the contrary “it maps a collectivity [the Jewish community] symbolically into space over which it does not claim political control.”

Also in the realm of the sociology of halacha is the decades-old dilemma: can you turn on the lights on Shabbat and Yom Tov, the holidays that share the obligations and restrictions of Shabbat? Is the turning on of electric lights akin to the kindling of fire, asked rabbinic leadership (and just plain folks) in the early decades of the century, and therefore a biblically prohibited melachah on the Sabbath? This question (mostly surrounding the Yom Tov issue; there was an early consensus that use of electricity was indeed forbidden on the Sabbath) became salient with the electrification of British Mandate Palestine in the 1920s. Rabbinic leadership began weighing in on the matter, with a celebrated debate in writing between two leaders — Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, then a young scholar, but well on his way to becoming one of the leading rabbinic lights of the Ashkenazic community in the Palestine Yishuv, then Israel; and Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg, a prominent communal rabbi in Montreal.

Amongst the technical, scientific questions addressed in the dueling presentations of Rabbis Auerbach and Rosenberg was what electricity in fact is in terms of a melachah. But the halachic definition of electricity was not the central issue, at least not according to Concordia University’s Ira Robinson. In “Halakha Adapts to Modern Technology in the Early Twentieth Century: Rabbis Yudel Rosenberg and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach on Electricity” (Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, March 2007), Robinson reports that Rabbi Rosenberg was dealing in Montreal with a fait accompli: “Stringency in this matter will constitute a decree with which most of the public is not able to abide.” Rabbi Rosenberg’s 1934 responsum on the matter, taking into account the history and sociology of Montreal Jewry was, shall one say, lenient.

Not so Rabbi Auerbach. Again, social conditions were paramount in his thinking — not the least of which was that the electrification of Palestine made an abstract halakhic issue one of pressing importance for observant Jews. Rabbi Auerbach, who was a young rabbi not willing to take head-on a rabbinic leader (even one not in Palestine!), used the oblique approach: “People will think that [electricity] is not real fire, and they will come to light and extinguish electricity on the Sabbath [as well as on holidays].” Bottom line: prohibited on both Shabbat and holidays.

At bottom, the two rabbis clashed because “they came to the issue with different trajectories as representatives of two different communities.” Rabbi Rosenberg had on his plate the problems of a North American city; his issue was enabling his community to remain faithful to Jewish tradition under conditions that were far from ideal. Rabbi Auerbach was a young scholar — not yet the universally-known and respected halachic decisor that he was to become — who was coming out of the world of the yeshiva; and, more to the point, coming from the perspective of the “Old Yishuv” in Palestine in which community standards of halachic observance tended to be higher than those of Orthodox Jews of North America.

The full story of the halachic debate over electricity is broad and deep — again, the shamor and zachor of the Sabbath. But the issue, as much as it was about the interface of science and halacha, was more about the sociology of religion and the history of community.

Sheds light!

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL), editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming “Whither American Zionism?” (Bar Ilan) and “The Future of American Jewish Religion” (Columbia University Press).

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week’s Facebook page and become a fan! And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.

read more: