Skip to main content

Sabbath Mode

Several people whom I know happened to be purchasing new stoves or ovens, and asked me, “What does it mean that the appliance has a Sabbath mode?” I knew what it was, even though my oven [float=left][img=/files/images/stove250.jpg]/files/images/stove250.jpg[/img][/float]doesn’t have it! My current oven isn’t very useful for Shabbat observance, since it shuts off after a few hours. Though I can leave food in to stay warm on Friday evenings in the winter, the oven would shut off before lunch the next day. Apparently, some people complained to oven manufacturers, and they invented Sabbath mode as a way to let oven users override the automatic shutoff.

Once I had explained what the oven feature was, one of my friends wanted to know why someone would want to leave the oven on for 24 hours. At that point, I had to explain that not working on Shabbat has a very specific meaning in rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis had to figure out which work counted as the labor you aren’t doing on Shabbat, and which other activities you could do, and they developed the classification of 39 categories of labor which is based on this week’s Torah portion and the proximity of the instruction to keep Shabbat to the discussion of how the Israelites built the mishkan, the portable tabernacle they used while wandering in the desert.

My friend said, “I knew you weren’t supposed to cook–I just assumed that meant a cold meal.” The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t like that idea, and they invented work-arounds that would make it possible not to cook but to still keep the food warm. Today’s work-arounds are of course more sophisticated. (Well, and less, since part of what they involve is a button to shut off the ways the oven beeps and thinks for itself about when to shut off!)

Professor Aryeh Cohen (whom I used to follow around with puppy-like devotion when we were both graduate students at Brandeis) wrote a discussion of this week’s Torah portion in which he understands Shabbat as a means of separating into a special space, just by what we aren’t doing:

So this is how I understand Yehudah Halevi’s poem. Shabbat is, essentially, a state of mind. Once you stop doing all the activities which are forbidden (sowing, sewing, building, writing, burning, etc.) you carry Shabbat around in your head and everything you do is done in the territory of Shabbat. There you can be walking down the same street as your neighbor who is not Jewish. Both of you are out for a morning stroll. Yet, you are doing a Shabbat activity since you are “in” Shabbat and he is not.

I thought this was cool, because I was trying to figure out how to translate “Sabbath mode” into what human beings do, and it’s true–shutting off your regular functions is what makes it possible to have a Sabbath mode.

On the other hand, Aryeh’s implication here about Jewish distinctiveness is difficult for me, because I know a lot of interfaith families who are sharing the benefits of Shabbat. What if “your neighbor” isn’t just your neighbor, but your very very good friend, such a good friend you decided to get married? Not exactly a neighbor. As Ed Case puts it, any Shabbat experience an interfaith family does is shared.

Not that I totally want to reject an opportunity for Jewish pride in distinctiveness. I sometimes see a bumper sticker, “The Labor Movement–The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” You could say the same about the Jewish people–we invented the idea of a day off, something everyone needs. Everyone in the world should feel invited into Shabbat territory, Shabbat headspace–Sabbath mode. It’s a Jewish contribution, a gift to civilization.

I’m writing this knowing fully well that stopping, not working, not doing, is much more challenging than you think. Most people, even those who want to, can’t do it. That’s why Exodus 31:13  in this week’s portion has this mysterious word “ach” meaning still, but, nevertheless or however. Because not working is hard, even on your day off.

Ruth Abrams


Author: Ruth Abrams