How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

April 26, 2006

Tilling on Shabbat

Filed under: Shabbat — howdoyoujew @ 15:31

When I moved to San Diego for graduate school in 1999, I made a commitment to myself not to work on Shabbat. Notice I didn’t say “to observe Shabbat,” with its connotations of not driving, not using electrical appliances, etc. My observance of Jewish ritual and practice had been evolving for years, and I was comfortable in the Conservative part of the spectrum, itself allowing for a great deal of diversity and customization. I simply decided not to do schoolwork on Shabbat; I knew I’d be plenty busy the rest of the week with it, and I wanted to set aside a day when I’d be forced to concentrate on other things. I managed to live up to that commitment for the entire run of my Master’s Degree studies, including getting my department to alter the comprehensive exam schedule, normally Friday to Monday, to accommodate me (and a fellow student, more formally observant than I).

Since then, I’ve gotten married, to a woman blessedly on the same page as I was in terms of observance. We’ve maintained the sense of kedusha – holiness and separation – by trying not to do things on Shabbat that “felt” like work. Thus it was with a conflicted mindset that I agreed, on this particular Shabbat, to join my father-in-law for some yard work. The decision was weighing on me even more since I’d decided to wear a kippah full-time during the Omer; going to a non-kosher restaurant and ordering something that wasn’t explicitly treyf was one thing, but how could I go into a business and carry out a monetary transaction? Now, as I sit here with my hands in so much pain that typing is something of a chore, and my head covered by a baseball cap, I truly appreciate the blessing of this day, and of my tradition.

The work in question was tilling the back yard in our new home, and both front and back at the in-laws’. It involved renting a roto-tiller – a gasoline-powered implement – and not a small amount of manual labor, clearly violations of the Shabbat in traditional terms. But several things occurred to me in the span of the couple of hours it took us to complete the work. First, after guiding the tiller in my own yard for 10 minutes, I gained a new-found respect for my 65-year-old father-in-law, whom I already thought of highly. His strength of body and character are inspiring; I would love to have his constitution in three decades, when I catch up to him.

Immediately following on this thought, I was struck by the image of one of my ancestors, watching his father tilling his field – without the aid of a motorized tool, and having much more property than the typical suburban American home. Then I realized what time of year this was: we just celebrated Pesach, and are in the period of the Omer, anticipating the arrival of Shavuot, which, notwithstanding the rabbinic connection to matan Totah, was at its origin a harvest festival (historically, the Omer was the portion of grain brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering immediately after Pesach).

So it was that doing yard work – on Shabbat, no less – became a transcendent, Jewish experience. The point of my wearing a kippah – the point of virtually every Jewish ritual, in fact – is to add spiritual significance to everyday acts. This can’t be done casually; simply going through the motions doesn’t count. So, while I’m no scholar or expert, I know enough to stop, think, and appreciate a moment that’s informed by Jewish experience. I also know enough to know that my interpretation wouldn’t sit well with a lot of people, even in my own denomination, and I’m aware that I have plenty more to learn, such that my own feelings on the subject might change over time. Still, this Shabbat morning provided me with at least as much spiritual nourishment and food for thought as shacharit and Torah services at shul would have, and for that I feel truly blessed.

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