Many years ago my fifth-grade general studies students asked me a question about Judaism, as they often did. Their Torah teacher in the morning, a girl not long out of seminary, had encouraged them to wear tzitzis as a form of personal protection. She even told them a story about someone who had been shot, but his tzitzis had miraculously stopped the bullet. My students, who knew I was not only a rabbi but a straight shooter, wanted to know if this was true.
I told them that this was a bunch of nonsense. First of all, if the reason for tzitzis was to provide physical protection, then why do we not wear tzitzis at night, when it is more dangerous? Why are women exempt from wearing them? Don't they need protection from bullets, too? Why do we only wear one pair? Why don't they cover our head? Clearly this was not the reason for the mitzva. In fact, unlike most mitzvos, the Torah provided the reason for tzitzis, and stopping bullets had nothing to with it.
“So why did she tell us this?” asked my students.
“Because she wants you to wear tzitzis,” I explained. “I also want you to wear tzitzis, but I'm not going to lie to you to get you to do it.”
I don't know if I convinced any of them to wear tzitzis that day, but hopefully I saved them from being unable to take Judaism seriously ever again. It's a lot easier to turn someone off to Judaism than it is to turn them on.
I share this story because of a recent op-ed by a rabbi calling for Jews worldwide to keep Shabbos. I respect this rabbi and his substantial contributions to the Jewish people, but unfortunately he fell into the same trap as the seminary girl. He repeatedly wrote of Shabbos in terms of slowing down, disconnecting from our electronic devices, connecting to those around us, and enjoying the simple things in life.
These are all valuable benefits that many people experience on Shabbos, but none of them are reasons for us to keep the mitzva. On the contrary, it makes it easy to rationalize violating Shabbos. What if one can earn a great deal of money on Shabbos without much effort? What if he would lose a great deal of money without violating Shabbos? What if he can slow down and disconnect on Tuesday instead? What if he has no loved ones close to him and would suffer greatly from disconnecting? What if to him the simple things in life include going for a drive, lighting a cigar, and other acts that violate Shabbos?
The rabbi's earnest sales pitch for Shabbos is a wonderful excuse for people to seek the same benefits without the onerous restrictions. Shabbos is a nice product, rabbi, but we can do better.
When we create sales pitches for the Torah and mitzvos that focus on people's comfort and convenience, we sell Judaism short and fail to inspire. Indeed, the Torah does not need us to sell it to the masses with clever advertising. The Torah does not need us to make it cool to appeal to a younger generation. The Torah is the crown jewel of creation, the blueprint with which God created the entire world. The Torah sells itself. We need only to present it.
Thankfully, the Torah conveniently provides the reasons for Shabbos as well. When Jews keep Shabbos they acknowledge that God created the world in six days and stopped creating on Shabbos. Shabbos is not a day of rest, but a day of stopping (see Shemos 12:15 and Viyikra 2:13 for two clear examples of the root of the word referring to ceasing, not resting). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains in Chorev, and as I also heard from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, the 39 prohibited categories of work are not necessarily physically taxing, but activities that demonstrate our mastery over creation. By refraining from these activities, we demonstrate that God is the true master over creation.
Indeed, Shabbos can be an extremely busy day. We spend more time in shul on Shabbos than during the week, the meals can be enjoyable but extremely long and tiring social affairs, and, ideally, we will spend much of the day engaged in Torah study. That's definitely not a day of rest as rest is normally understood.
The Torah also describes Shabbos as one of many commemorations of Hashem freeing us from slavery in Egypt, which we symbolize by allowing our servants and animals a day off from their usual labor. But, again, even if one wishes to work on Shabbos, even if, in the short term, it seems like keeping Shabbos will cost him a fortune, he is prohibited to work. It is not a voluntary day off, but a required day off. We are not allowed to be slaves to our work even if we wish to be. We serve Hashem.
It is for this reason that Shabbos is a mitzva unique to the Jews, and not universal. If Shabbos were merely a day of rest and recognition of God, it should be for all of mankind. However, Chazal describe Shabbos as a marital bond between God and the Jewish people. A non-Jew who keeps Shabbos is likened to one who interposes himself between a king and queen when they are being intimate, with predictable consequences. A non-Jew is not allowed to keep Shabbos! Clearly, those who reduce Shabbos to a change of pace and a time to connect with family are way off the mark and miss the essence of the day.
Fortunately, Shabbos is a paid day off from our parnassa-driven occupation. The Torah teaches that those who keep Shabbos are blessed with extra livelihood during the week to make up for the day off. We lose not a single penny for keeping Shabbos; in fact, it is a source of blessing for the rest of the week.
This is something we can see with our own eyes. We should expect Shabbos observers to be at a major disadvantage when it comes to earning a living. Not only are their job prospects and business opportunities restricted, they have over 14 percent fewer available hours to work. By all rights their income should reflect this, yet historically Jews who keep Shabbos fare no worse than those who don't. If anything, Jews who restrict their earnings to the other six days and take Shabbos off tend to be more affluent than average. This cannot be a coincidence, and the historical sample size is so large and varied that it cannot be explained any other way: Shabbos is a blessing.
I appreciate the rabbi's efforts to convince more Jews to keep Shabbos, and share his desire. However, creating sales pitches for Shabbos to appeal to the narcissistic Western mind reduces it to just another lifestyle choice, to be kept only so long as it is comfortable and convenient, and discarded when not.
would like very much for every Jew to keep Shabbos – but I will not
lie to them or trick them into trying it. Let us teach it widely and
proudly, and let the light of truth contained in the Torah sell