Celebrating Shabbat in Many Ways

Contemporary Jews have adapted traditional Shabbat practices in non-traditional and sometimes surprising ways.

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David, a stockbroker, uses the telephone to make outgoing calls on the Sabbath but never takes incoming calls. One day a week, he wants to set the telephone agenda. Syd, a college professor whose mother is in a nursing home, answers the phone but does not call out. "What if she's trying to reach me?" he wonders.

Gloria, our grandmotherly neighbor at our summer bungalow in upstate New York, doesn't observe the Sabbath, except for one thing: she won't knit or crochet. I have met others of her generation who also single out one activity that they refrain from doing: cooking, laundry, cleaning, and putting on makeup. One thing they choose; everything else is okay.

Sandy, an executive of the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, drives his car on Shabbat, but not on the freeways. Streets are okay, he explains, "but the freeways remind me of work."

Leslie, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Detroit, told me that she drives but doesn't carry money. This became a problem one Saturday when she encountered a toll on her way to visit her mother. She began to explain to the toll taker that she was a Sabbath observer and didn't carry money, but he quickly cut her off. "Lady, then why are you driving?" She convinced the toll taker to let her through.

Ilan, an Orthodox college student who sleeps with his girlfriend on Friday nights, tears open his condom packages early in the day so that he does not violate the Sabbath by tearing unnecessarily.

In one Orthodox home I know, the television stays off on Shabbat, as do the CD player, the radio, and the computer. No one answers the telephone, and all the men wear yarmulkes. But on Saturday afternoons, the family's fifteen-year-old son sits down to play the piano for an hour. He plays Chopin and Mozart and his own compositions. "He needs to express himself," the father explains. "And this is how he does it."

Fred, a Jewish educator in Providence, Rhode Island, observes Shabbat but takes the summers off. His wife, he explains, simply can't resist the beach in July and August. That's the only time of the year they drive on Saturdays.

Traditionally, one doesn't smoke on Shabbat, but Jerome, a retired corporate executive from Westport, Connecticut, honors the day with a Havana. "I can't think of a better time to smoke my favorite cigar," he explained.

In his youth, my Orthodox friend Lenny was a Deadhead, one of those devotees who followed the Grateful Dead around the country getting high as a kite. But Lenny couldn't bring himself to smoke pot on Shabbat. His solution: He baked hash brownies on Friday and ate them on Saturday for a special Shabbat high.

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Ari Goldman

Ari L. Goldman, one of the nation's leading religion journalists, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of three books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard.