Judaism Unplugged

Judaism Unplugged

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting: 5:33 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 35:1–38:20
Haftorah: I Kings 7:40-50
(Ashkenaz); 7:13-26 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 6:34 p.m.

‘Six days, physically creative activities shall be done but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the Lord [of love] … you shall not kindle a fire in all of your habitations on the Sabbath day.” [Exodus 35:23].

Why can’t I go on Facebook or text on Shabbat? I understand that it is forbidden for me to get involved in a physically exacting activity such as bricklaying, or working an eight-hour day in the office, but what kind of work is involved in a simple SMS communication to a friend? Is not such human communication the very purpose of Shabbat rest? There certainly is not even a hint of “kindling a fire,” or even the creation of a spark, or the turning on of a light, in sending an SMS: So why is it forbidden? These are the questions I am receiving from more and more young people in the age of the Internet.

What is the proper response? A careful study of Vayalchel’s opening verses clearly teaches that Shabbat is more than a respite from the six days of physical exertion. Yes, it is also that, and for most of humanity, for most of human history, that in itself was a critical necessity towards making life much more livable and enjoyable. But if that were to be the whole point of Shabbat, then one could spend it comfortably relaxing in bed without any activity whatsoever.

That is not what the biblical text is teaching when it states, “The seventh day shall be holy for you, a Sabbath of Sabbaths [Shabbaton, a special day of more than physical rest] for the Lord,” a sacred day dedicated to God and not only to the comfort of your aching body. This point is made by Nachmanides (Ramban) in his commentary on Leviticus 23:24. Ramban explains that “Shabbaton,” when used in the context of Rosh HaShanah, means that in addition to the negative prohibition of work (melacha) on Shabbat, there is also a positive biblical commandment for a recognizable expression of Shabbat menucha (spiritual activity which can be accomplished on the one day in which the individual is freed from his weekday toil), a day dedicated to God. He adds that the word Shabbaton applies this positive principle for every Shabbat and Holy Festival.

Maimonides (Rambam) derives this very same positive biblical commandment from the words in the Ten Commandments regarding the Sabbath, “in order that your gentile manservant and maidservant shall rest like you” [Deut. 5:14] — a positive, spiritual rest which ought to apply to all of humanity. Hence there is a biblical command (Shabbaton or L’ma’an yanuah) not to engage in an activity on Shabbat that is identified with work-related or weekday activities (like using the telephone or text messaging).

It is even a good deal more: If you study the second Mishnah in the seventh chapter of Tractate Shabbat, you will see that the very order of the 39 forbidden activities goes from the production of bread to the production of garments to the production of leather to the acts of building structures.

In effect, the Mishnah is teaching that although it is legitimate to provide for the basic necessities of human existence — food, clothing and shelter — during the six workdays, Shabbat must remind us of the essence and purpose of human life: to make sensitive and sentient contact with the glories of nature surrounding us (the God without) and with the “soul of life” (nishmat chaim) within us (the God within). Shabbat is a day for reflecting upon and expressing the very purpose of our being, the “why” for which I am living, rather than “how” to exist as comfortably as possible.

Indeed, our generation has more technological communication but less real communication than ever before.

We constantly text message but before we can read what came a minute ago, two newer messages have already arrived. We “see” what our “friend” has written, yet we do not hear the sound of his voice, which reflects his truest inner feelings.

I recently read about a young girl who invited her 500 Facebook “friends” to her birthday party and not one of them showed up. I can be in an important meeting with a colleague or employee, but our eyes never make contact; he is looking down at the new messages entering his cellphone. A few weeks ago, I saw a newly minted bride and groom eating “together” at a restaurant, he on his phone and she on her phone. They were not speaking to each other.

Shabbat provides the opportunity to unplug for one day a week in order to more successfully “plug-in” on the other six days. Without that Shabbat respite, you just may become plugged-up.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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