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A Gentile's Guide to Cheating the Shabbat

Let’s be honest, there is no seamless way to merge Halachic Judaism with modern life. But there are workarounds.

by Sam McPheeters
Jun 28 2012, 4:00am

The Shabbat is a day of rest and contemplation. If you are observant and Jewish, this means you get one day a week to catch up on your spiritual reflection. If you are unclear on how to do so in this fast-paced modern world, fret not. The Talmud set down precise rules for what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath. These 39 categories of activity—called Melacha—cannot occur between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. The trick is in obeying the spirit of rules established long before every conceivable modern convenience.

Take just two Melachas, 36 and 37. In the age of electricity, these bans on fire (kindling and extinguishing, respectively) have generated all sorts of thorny debates over interpretation. Does a light bulb violate the ban? How about a battery-operated hearing aid?

The variety of opinions is as wide as the range of options. While The Council of Torah Sages outlawed the Internet, The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists offers podcasts. Let’s be honest, there is no seamless way to merge Halachic Judaism with modern life. But there are workarounds.


It's Saturday morning. The phone rings. You're about to answer it when suddenly you remember: It’s the Sabbath. Your hand hovers in indecision over the receiver. Maybe a hurt child needs a blood transfusion. Perhaps a planet is hurtling towards the Earth’s atmosphere and someone is calling to beckon you to shelter. Or maybe it's just your wife, asking if you taped last's night's Undercover BossBut how will you know if you can't answer the frigging phone?

The Zomet Institute—an Israeli research institute "dedicated to seamlessly merging Halachic Judaism with modern life"—has invented a Shabbat telephone. Instead of completing an electrical circuit, this nifty device barges in on an existing circuit, thus bypassing Melacha 38, the ban on completing.


Even on the Shabbat, prescriptions must be filled, switches flipped, heaters fixed, stoves lit. But asking for direct help is forbidden, so this service relies on hints and innuendo and lots of goodwill made toward non-Jews. There can't be any direct quid pro quo, beyond a friendly smile and/or some pastries. Dependence on non-Jews runs counter to the self-reliance that Israel was founded on, which is why there really are no famous ex-Shabbat Goys in the Holy Land. But America is full of such ex-helpers: young Elvis, James Cagney, Colin Powell, and Louie Armstrong (according to darker corners of the internet, a young Obama was a Shabbat Goy, perhaps moonlighting from his mosque duties in Indonesia.)


Sabbath elevators are regular elevators programmed to stop at every floor during the Sabbath, removing the need to push buttons. They are the flying Dutchmen of vertical transportation equipment, the creepiest of Sabbath workarounds. You know that weird feeling you get when your elevator stops at a floor and nobody's there? Imagine if this happened on every floor. Spooky.


What could be more basic than the need for chilled sustenance between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday? Place a strip of masking tape over the refrigerator door switch, thus tricking the machine into thinking it has been devoutly closed. Fire is neither kindled nor extinguished, you've got something to eat, everyone's happy. All problems should be dealt with so easily.


Melachot 32 prohibits writing down more than two letters during the Sabbath. Note that this rule only covers letters. It doesn't say anything about how many characters you can use. If you're willing to spice up your alphabet with some punctuation, you can still express a wide range of complex thoughts. You can ask a question (c? k? y?), convey a warning (b! p!), or express an interjection (g! o!). But there are occasional crisis situations which require two or more letters of written instruction. What if you need to write a post-it note to let someone know you’ve gone to ER? 

For these scenarios, the mad scientists at Zomet have crafted a solution: the Sabbath pen. Write down whatever you desire. The ink takes a few days to disappear, leaving you with more than enough time to convert your data into a photocopy or scan or comical t-shirt when Halachically appropriate.


Using timers seems like flat-out cheating.


Removing bones from fish on the Sabbath is a clear violation of rule number seven, Borer, the ban on sorting inedible matter from food. The rather elegant solution to this is pre-deboned fish; breaded, balled, mushed, and mashed with eggs, onions, and horseradish. It's a dish suitable for 1912 tenement dwellers and 2012 Subaru Forester owners alike. It's also a foodstuff ritualistically linked to the Leviathan, that monstrous megafish of the Hebrew Bible. According to an 11th century Aramaic poem, Jews will eventually dine on Leviathan’s carcass in Heaven. Hopefully the feast doesn't fall on a Saturday: In terms of feats of engineering, that particular pre-deboning would rival the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.


A website can take orders after sundown Friday (although those orders can't get filled until after the Sabbath). E-commerce sites that refer to another site can make workarounds tricky—avoiding specific revenue from Sabbath orders is crucial—but from a commerce perspective, this is a godsend. For observant Jews, cyberspace is still a hotly contested gray zone, a kindled fire of many lusts. Just this May, an ultra-Orthodox group sold out NY's Citi Field with a Rally Against the Internet. At least some of the 40,000+ tickets were hawked on ultra-Orthodox websites. Imagine how G-D damned complex this is gonna get when robot butlers arrive.


 This is called Pikuach Nefesh, and it's the big ticket cheat. All sorts of prohibited activities become possible if a life is on the line. And it stands to reason that the more lives can be saved, the more prohibited activities can be performed. Say some crafty terrorists worked out some insane Rube Goldberg contraption that required you to kindle a fire, debone a fish, and press a bunch of elevator buttons. As long as you save someone by your actions, it’s all on the table.


The ultimate cheat. Many families use the Sabbath as free time to catch up on their reading, despite the fact that great literature allows one to weave (Melacha 19) tales, build (Melacha 34) new worlds, and transport (Melacha 39) oneself to far away realms.

At least you're not kindling fire. But what if you're reading on a Kindle Fire?

Oy vey.