Shabbat (Part 2) — What Is (or Isn’t) Permitted on Shabbat?

by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)


This article is the second in a series of articles about the centerpiece and jewel of our faith — Shabbat. Volumes could be written about the “do’s and don’ts”  (mostly “don’ts”) of Shabbat.  In fact, large sections of the Talmud are devoted to the subject.  But the overarching rule for Shabbat observance is this:  we must not create. For six days, God created our world and on the seventh day God rested.  And so must we.  Six days a week we work hard at creating the reality in which we live.  On Shabbat it’s time for us to rest, to stop creating and merely to observe, enjoy, and receive.

So what constitutes creation? That’s the question. Jewish law actually defines 39 categories of prohibited forms of work activities, including a variety of agricultural and cooking activities, activities that deal with animal husbandry of various form (e.g., shearing sheep, slaughtering), and crafts of various kinds.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to create all the arts and crafts I was so fond of — no cutting, sewing, drawing, knitting, etc. on Shabbat. Homework was also restricted because I was not permitted to write. Because of the halachic (legal) decision that the use of electricity and other forms of energy are a form of creation (the creation or extinguishing of “fire”), observant Jews do not turn on lights or electrical appliances.  This led to  the tradition of the “Shabbat Goy” — a person you hire to turn things on and off for you!  Personally, I have always viewed this practice, as well as the use of pre-programmed timers that turn lights off and on, as cheats.   However, since leaving energy running the entire length of Shabbat is traditionally permitted, various cooking recipes were developed  (like the slow-cooked “cholent”, eaten at dinner on Saturday)  in which food is cooked for the entire length of Shabbat.

Transportation of any kind except walking is also considered a form of work or creation for purposes of Shabbat.  In fact, “transportation” has been extended to prohibitions on carrying objects (except those that are considered one’s clothing) or even pushing a stroller outside the home.  This has led to the  the custom of building an “Eruv”, a symbolic string or separator of some kind around a town, that creates an area that is symbolically deemed to be “home” and therefore an area in which some limited forms of carrying are permitted. Perhaps another cheat?

Obviously, the restrictions tend to pile up, depending on what you consider “creation” or “work” to be.  For example, I was surprised to learn that for the strictly observant, sorting is not allowed. No sorting of buttons, beans, or nails in the garage!

Of course, most of us do not adhere to many of the Shabbat restrictions.  How can we develop a meaningful practice that allows us to feel that we are taking time off from creation? You will have to decide for yourself.  Perhaps on Shabbat you will not work at your job, write homework essays, or work on your sewing chores. Choose a Shabbat practice that is meaningful for you — that will give you the break you need from the busy creativity of the work week.