Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 16 March 2013 / 4 Nisan 5773

Shabbat Symphony

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Melissa

Dear Rabbi,

I keep Shabbat but I feel that the nitty-gritty halachot take away the beauty of Shabbat in that they make people more worried about how to open a can on Shabbat than to actually truly observe it. I have seen people actually embarrass others by calling them out on little halachik issues. I understand that on the one hand halacha is faith-based, and even though some things seem pointless I feel like I understand the bigger picture. However, I am sometimes also struck with this dilemma and wanted to know what you thought, and maybe points I could consider in order to clear things up for myself.

Dear Melissa,

It is true that in addition to the "letter of the law" of Shabbat, there is also the "spirit of the law", and many people naturally connect to that spirit more than to the nitty-gritty of the law. Yet by the same token, many people connect to the letter of the law aspect, and try their best to honor the Shabbat in that way.

Unfortunately, certain people can become too concerned only about what you call the nitty-gritty. This can result in losing focus on the spirit of Shabbat, and even dampening that spirit by reprimanding others in an insensitive and embarrassing way, which is obviously wrong.

But in truth, a proper balance should be the objective of everyone: knowing the laws and upholding them in all their details, while retaining the spirit of Shabbat that these laws intend to induce. G-d certainly wants us to observe and honor Shabbat, which also honors Him, through keeping these laws. That's why they're commanded in the Torah.

One who abides by these rules for observing Shabbat shows that he takes G-d, the Torah and Shabbat seriously. It's not only about how I connect to the spirit of Shabbat, because in an extreme example (which I know you're not advocating), a person can come to desecrate the Shabbat many times over in the name of celebrating what he considers to be its spirit.

Rather, the laws of Shabbat define a certain framework within which we celebrate its spirit. Like any important and successful event, there's a protocol, a schedule of events, a theme and an agenda — to which much attention on detail is placed in order that each phase of the event is a success on it own, while simultaneously contributing to the overall purpose of the occasion. Anything else would result in a chaotic free-for-all.

But even the laws themselves go beyond the technicalities of can-opening. For example, there's a whole set of laws governing what one may and may not speak about on Shabbat. Business, news, politics or any other mundane topic should be avoided on Shabbat. One is encouraged to use more refined language on Shabbat, and there were many who endeavored to speak only the Holy Tongue on Shabbat even though they spoke more fluently in some other language. This is all in order to create and preserve a spirit of sanctity and holiness on Shabbat.

So the fine details of Shabbat observance are actually an integral facet of its spirit. You might compare it to a beautiful symphony. Certainly the harmony is beautiful to listen to and readily enjoyed. But think about how much extreme detail and attention to technicality there is behind that beauty, from the painstaking transcription of notes by the composer, to the exacting effort made by each musician in every note they play. Yet it is that intense focus on detail which, when orchestrated properly, renders such a beautiful, inspiring and moving experience. This is the Shabbat Symphony, when performed properly.

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