Jewish Sabbath nuttiness hits a new high

I have often said that Judaism is a religion for the obsessive-compulsive, with rule after rule, hundreds of them, interpreted and extrapolated to the finest nuance by generations of rabbis.  It could easily keep you busy most or all of your waking hours.

Nowhere is Jewish OCD on more florid display than in the 24 hours called Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. (NOTE: The following is about truly observant Jews; practitioners of Judaism Lite, like my family, pretty much ignore Sabbath prohibitions.)  

In Exodus 23:12, we read "Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed." 

That's it.  There are several more passages, with about the same information. one about remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy (Exodus 20:8-11); another about God resting on the seventh day (Exodus 31:12-17).  Deuteronomy 5:12-15 goes into detail about who is refreshed and adds another reason to observe -- because God brought you out of Egypt (I know -- it makes no sense to me either).

Don't work. Refresh yourself.  Primitive wisdom that's still valid.  

And yet Jews have taken a good idea and, with typical obsessiveness, made it a grotesque parody of the original.  They couldn't leave well enough alone.  They had to festoon it with a million trivial prohibitions.  

Somehow the idea of employing power or energy got stuck in there by rabbis with too much time on their hands. obviously cannot drive or operate any modern technology.  Visit a sick relative on the Sabbath?  No can do, if it involves driving. Piety trumps morality, which is one of the things I most hate about religion..  

See, Jews are sharp, crafty people, and they will find ways around the rule. Early in my life, I learned about the Sabbath elevators, which stop at every floor, so you don't have to operate them.  In his movie Religulous, Bill Maher visited a shop in Israel that sells bizarre Sabbath gadgets -- a phone which you dial by interrupting circuits instead of connecting them; an air-powered wheelchair (Maher: "You're going to a lot of effort to obey the God who put you in the wheelchair").

In my wife's family, when her mother was dying, her observant sister once got news by pretending to overhear a contrived phone conversation so she wouldn't be guilty of picking up the phone and thus doing work.

I have barely scratched the surface of Sabbath nuttiness.  My favorite was, till now, the Sabbath toilet paper -- sheets in a box on the toilet.  My wife couldn't tell what they were, so -- in a scene reminiscent of Stallone in Demolition Man -- she has to come out of the bathroom and have the hygiene technology explained to her by her sister: it's pre-torn on Friday,  Tearing paper is work, you see.

But this is a new high (or low).  


Today's strange Jewish thing.
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The Crazy New Invention for Using Electricity on Shabbat

By Jewniverse

The Crazy New Invention for Using Electricity on Shabbat

For many observant Jews, not using electricity is one of the most salient aspects of Sabbath observance. But a new invention aims to change that.

By changing the way a light switch works, the patented Kosher Switch offers a novel — and, its backers say, kosher — way to turn light switches (and, perhaps, other electrical appliances) on and off during Shabbat.

In its first three days alone, the product’s backers raised more than $45,000 on their Indiegogo campaign to start manufacturing the device.

Menashe Kalati, the device’s inventor, calls it a “long overdue, techno-halachicbreakthrough.”

But critics say the Kosher Switch isn’t really kosher for Shabbat at all – and that Kalati is misrepresenting rabbinic opinions on the matter to give the false impression that he has their endorsements.

At issue is whether the device’s permissibility for Shabbat relies on a Jewish legal loophole that applies only to extraordinary circumstances like medical or security needs. The loophole, known as a “gramma,” allows for indirect activation of electronic devices on Shabbat.

While some are arguing about the switch on halakhic grounds, Queens-based Rabbi Mordechai Hecht points out that since there are always interpretive disputes, the real question should be: “Can it enhance the Shabbos?”


That's right, folks, Jews are trying to bend the laws of physics to placate an ancient volcano god whose simple commandment has, in the hands of rabbis and entrepreneurs, spawned a whole new industry.  Even the site, Jewniverse, calls it "crazy."  Another demonstration of why religion involves, in the words of Richard Sosis (American Scientist, 2004) "behavior too costly to fake."


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Comment by Alan Perlman on April 29, 2015 at 12:52pm

I mistakenly deleted a paragraph in which I responded to Michael.  Part of it was on language and linguistics.  I noted that the general level of knowledge about how language operates is not very high, which is why it's so easy for politicians, marketers, and clergymen (my Terrible Three) to spread their BS.  

Michael suggested we have a language thread here, which is not a bad idea, because there's a lot to be said about the language of religion and how it creates entire worlds (and afterlives) that have no reality (this is called "intensional" language, versus the "extensional" language about agreed-upon reality).

Also deleted was a comment on how one becomes an atheist. There are as many paths as there are people.  I was not someone how had to free himself from the bonds of Orthodoxy.  I was a skeptic (like my Dad) from a very early age but played along because everyone else did.  It was really a shock (which I still haven't gotten over) to realize that otherwise sane, reality-grounded adults would pretend to believe in primitive stories and re-enact the rituals of these long-ago believers in gods and magic.  

I was under little pressure to BE Jewish (we ignored  almost all of the requirements - my Dad's drugstore was open on Saturday -- but under great pressure to MARRY Jewish.  Why go to all that trouble to perpetuate something you don't really believe in or practice?  The hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance were hard for me to understand as a youngster, but I definitely get it now.

Comment by jlaz on April 29, 2015 at 9:48am

regarding Ladino:

I heard an interesting story about Jewish language and Spanish.  I don't know if it was Ladino, but I think it might have been.  A Spanish-speaking friend of mine told me she visited Israel and was in a place where there were a fair number of old people and there was one lady that they didn't have much communication with her.  I'm not sure why, but in the story, the folks at this place did not really get why this lady wasn't able to communicate more fully.  

However, my friend was able to strike up a conversation with her because it turned out that my friend's Spanish (and perhaps other languages) were close enough to what this lady understood, and at that point the folks understood that the explanation for the communication problem involved more of a language barrier than they had realized.  Anyway, that's how I remember the story as it was told to me.

Comment by jlaz on April 29, 2015 at 9:42am

Hi Alan - 

With respect to the calendar, I think it's interesting to contemplate what we all might have done to keep track of hours, days, etc. if we did not live in a modern age.  I don't know to what extent the invention of the Sabbath (or the like) weaves into the story of the invention of useful calendars.  For example, the sabbath doesn't seem to be mentioned explicitly at this summary:

I think if I were living in a more primitive era, I guess the cycles of the moon would have been something I'd have tried to use to keep track of things, as well as the changing of the seasons.  However, it might have been useful to break things into numbers of days that I could grasp (I'm not sure what my idea of numbers would be, though there would be some).

I think of it a little like a piano keyboard, without strategically placed black keys, it would be hard to keep track of which white key is which.  Likewise, if all days were like all other days, then wouldn't that make it a bit harder to keep track of the passage of time, whether work is on schedule, etc?  I'm sure others have thought of all this, but anyway that is part of what is on my mind when I approach the Jewish weekly day.  Since I'm an atheist, I guess I get to mulling over the value outside of "so-and-so commanded thus-and-such".

With respect to the topic of Shabbat in general:

When I moved to a more isolated area some years back, once in awhile I liked to go to services on Friday night.  They provided some sense of community and familiarity, at times.  I did discuss with the Rabbi that I am atheist, but that I was respectful, and he had a sense of where I was coming from and was ok with it.  I also enjoyed listening to some of his commentaries.  I think sometimes despite his theism he makes some points that strike me as worth the listen.

Another thing I think of, as to Shabbos, is the scene or scenes in The Big Lebowski where John Goodman defends his observance (he won't roll on Shabbos, etc.).  I guess like a lot of people, I just got a kick out of the movie and various scenes, including those, but as well, they were kind of a reminder to me.

I think it can be somewhat hard to reframe one's thinking.  At some point a long time ago I stopped believing in any sort of god, but I also at some point thought that maybe there were some good take-aways from being part of the Tribe of Israel, and-or from the system, .... does one make a clean and dismissive break?  Is there a danger of becoming disconnected in an unhealthy way from community, or a sense of life that had roots in what one was taught?

When I was a kid, a Jewish holiday was a day to go to temple (I didn't go that often, but sometimes) and see fellow members of the community, who were dressed well and respectfully and on their best behavior and congenial in their behavior toward each other and cognizant that they were there for reasons other than, or higher than, some of the pursuits of the week.  The Rabbi served a function of maybe picking out important themes, and the passages under discussion sometimes had interesting moral tales to contemplate. 

So, what appeals to me, even as an atheist, is not just the idea of taking a break, but the idea of setting aside time to try to focus on staying on track and defining what is really important, to meditate, to repair relationships or build them, or just to sit quietly and coast a bit, if that is what is wanted.  Also, to listen to and participate in some music.  Also, there is room carved out for remembering one's loved ones, and if need be there temple is there to serve purposes at times of birth, marriage, dying, coming of age, etc.  Yes, arguably theism is inextricable from Judaism, and so one could say that I shouldn't wax poetic about what Judaism has to offer, and in reality I personally don't get much out of it.  However, I think there various reasons to mull it over and participate as an atheist if one chooses.

With all that said, I hadn't given much thought to the nuttiness you've highlighted.  It's something I've more read about than experienced.  I don't believe in the god or the religion, so I don't feel compelled to follow the practices, but I guess I can see how people can go down the practices tied notionally to something they believe in.  Even if they do, it does seem a bit much sometimes, particularly if they lose track of their claimed purpose for the day.

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 28, 2015 at 9:59pm

PS. If we're talking about Jewish languages, let's not forget Ladino

Comment by Michael Pianko on April 28, 2015 at 6:52pm
One more thing, there needs to be a discussion category or thread somewhere for the field of linguistics.
Comment by Michael Pianko on April 28, 2015 at 6:51pm
The sad thing about my experience is that I realized that there is no god when I was 15 but I was afraid to admit it until I was 26, and between that time I had phases where I relapsed and I thought I had to do everything Orthodox Judaism says you have to do, and I could not go my college's football games because going to a game requires carrying your ticket on shabbos. But I did go to one game in order to avoid feeling too guilty for not going to even one game... All people have hyppcracies and contradictions and all people are smart and can use logical reasoning but a major side effect of being smart is that people easily get infected with obsessions and compulsions and from the viewpoint of psychology, if you are being honest, religions are all mental syndroms consisting of obsessions and compulsions which people feel compelled to do in order to avoid feeling too guilty about themselves due to the possibility of not doing what they think they are supposed to do.
Comment by sk8eycat on April 28, 2015 at 6:51pm

Thanks for the insult, Michael.

Comment by Michael Pianko on April 28, 2015 at 6:39pm
Alan, you are not the only one here. Most people have no clue what the field of linguistics is. They think a linguist is somebody why speaks a few different languages.
Comment by Alan Perlman on April 27, 2015 at 1:37pm

jlaz, you raise interesting questions.  Originally, what was mandated as a day of rest became a day of fear.   The Torah has an anecdote about a man who was executed for working on the Sabbath.

The answer to your question is at your fingertips - just Google "history of our modern calendar."

Yiddish is written in both the Hebrew and Roman alphabets.  I think it's pretty phonetic in both, with some exceptions, but nothing like English, which I estimate is no more than 60% phonetic (or phonemic, to use the technical term).

Comment by Alan Perlman on April 27, 2015 at 1:25pm

Reply to Michael...Again thanks for the helpful info.  Much of the history of Yiddish is new to me and very interesting.  On the other hand, I don't need explanations of basic linguistic concepts - I have a PhD in this and have taught courses in the history of the English language..  No offense.  Of course English is not a Romance language,  But REALLY basic vocabulary, including a large number of word roots, points to a common ancestor for both.  

When I say that Yiddish represents a (or more than one) creolization, I refer to the adoption of vocabulary and grammar from one or more foreign languages to produce a new linguistic entity.  This is what happened in Hawaii (my dissertation topic).

Please send more info on Yiddish as a Slavic language.  Thanks. 



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