How does one determine the proper way to keep Shabbat? I get that question regularly from Jews who do not follow Halacha traditionally but do want a means of deciding such things as whether to write or ride or use electricity. This dilemma arises in this week’s reading, where the classic commandment to observe Shabbat is found.
Because that commandment is adjacent to discussion of building the desert sanctuary, the rabbis interpret Shabbat work to include the 39 activities connected with that sanctuary’s sacrificial cult — including sowing and ploughing, kneading and baking, spinning and tearing, slaughtering and writing, kindling or dousing a fire.
Liberal-minded Jews often wonder about these things. Kindling fire was difficult work back then, they say, but flicking a switch is hardly backbreaking labor. They miss the point. They may decide that turning on lights is permissible for them on Shabbat, but that decision can hardly be based on the amount of toil involved. The rabbis’ concept of work goes much deeper than that.
The 39 forms of tabernacle work fall into four categories: baking bread (for the priests), preparing fabric (for the tabernacle’s curtains), preparing a scroll (for writing), and building (the tabernacle). They are, however, part of a larger category: the human project of building and preserving culture.
This insight arrives by applying an insight from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who noted that every human society cooks food, mandates clothing, builds and decorates homes, and transmits learning from generation to generation. This insistence on converting nature into cuisine, style, art, and a historical record are what make us fully human.
The rabbinic forms of work, then, are exemplifications of the grand human project of transforming nature into culture.
“Work” is not just going to a job or doing housework; it is the ongoing human effort to leave our mark upon the world. This human project engages us, because it is the means of staking out our worth and what we will be remembered for. It’s what gets us up the morning.
But it’s what we also lose sleep over. Shabbat, therefore, is the day that provides a break from the ongoing task of advancing the human project; as if God says, “I hold you responsible for perfecting my world — but not today.”
So here is how I, a liberal Jew, make Shabbat decisions. I consult Halacha with seriousness; I then measure my life not by its specific regulations, but by its principles, one of which is taking time off from the human project.
On Shabbat, I do not write my books, articles, and columns, but I do e-mail personal notes to friends and family. Shabbat reading can be about anything — but not connected to my research. I study Torah, but not any section on which I am writing an article. I do no errands, but I drive to synagogue, simhas, and leisure activities that enhance life’s fullness.
I have the highest regard for Jews who follow the traditional halachic guide to keeping Shabbat. But imagining just that single path puts Shabbat beyond the reach of those who find its halachic details unpersuasive, but who want to honor Shabbat in a reasonable and satisfying way. This underlying principle of the Ongoing Human Project can be compelling guide to making Shabbat matter in our lives.