Humanistic Judaism North American Federation Conference Highlights
Question: Should the Sabbath be important to Humanistic Jews?
Responsum: In priestly and rabbinic Judaism, the Shabbat is regarded as one of the two supreme signs of the covenant between Yahveh and Israel. Its origin is traced back to the creation of the world; and it remains the only ritual observance demanded in the Ten Commandments.
The Shabbat is traditionally viewed as a day on which all significant activities should stop, whether work or leisure. Games are no more permissible than selling. In priestly Judaism the prohibitions were quite severe. The day was spent in the house in the dark with no cooking fires allowed. To alleviate some of the severity of the Shabbat, lights could be kindled before the Sabbath, to be used on the Sabbath. People were permitted to leave their houses, especially if they were attending the synagogue or the house of study. Reading and discussion of sacred texts were encouraged. But the Talmud was very specific about the thirty-nine prohibited forms of activity. Actions like writing, carrying small objects, and tearing paper were no-no’s and religiously provocative.
If one wants to talk about this abstinence from activity as “rest,” one is using the word rather freely. Although the day was filled with Sabbath meals and family togetherness, it was also filled with great anxiety about not accidentally slipping into prohibited behavior; for the divine punishments for violating the Shabbat were very severe.
Modern critical study reveals that the Sabbath did not begin as a rest day. It began as a day when it was believed that all activity, whether work or pleasure was dangerous. The earliest use of the word shabbat is not with regard to the seventh day of the week but to the full moon. Even today many people believe that it is dangerous to leave the house when the full moon shines.
Secular society has turned the Shabbat Sabbath into a day of leisure for both Jews and gentiles. The 5-day week has produced the “weekend,” of which Saturday is an integral part. Whether leisure is rest depends on the kind of leisure that you do and also on the personality that is indulging it. Idle shopping can be pleasurable for some and tedious for others, just as Bible study can be pleasurable for some and tedious for others. Enforced staying at home, especially if the family is absent, would hardly be regarded as restful.
For Humanistic Jews, the Sabbath is significant not because it is a day of no activity but because it is a day of Jewish activity. The Shabbat has evolved in modern times as a weekly day when many Jews affirm their Jewish identity. They may do so in a variety of ways. They may hold a special Shabbat dinner. They may light Shabbat candles. they may come together with other Jews in a public service. They may study Jewish books. The Shabbat is a day when Jews can feel more Jewish and know that this experience is shared by other Jews, at the same time, throughout the world.
Whether one indulges in work or leisure on that day is quite irrelevant to its humanistic significance. An individualistic society has to allow for a wide variety of schedules and a wide tolerance of ways to express Jewish identity. Writing a Jewish memoir may be just as appropriate to the Sabbath as not writing at all.
In short, the Sabbath, as a day of rest, is not relevant to Humanistic Judaism. The Sabbath as a day for affirming and celebrating Jewish identity, certainly is.