Latest update: January 15th, 2015
Question: May someone who desecrates the Sabbath lead the services if he has yahrzeit? If yes, can he replace someone else who has yahrzeit?
Answer: We have received many inquiries on this subject and, in fact, we discussed this many years ago. Therefore, we will adapt somewhat from that earlier discussion.
Most authorities disapprove of a Sabbath desecrator serving as a shliach tzibbur. Though this matter seems quite elementary, in today’s day and age it appears to be of great relevance in many locales. It is important, therefore, that we first highlight the source for Sabbath observance and its relative gravity to all Jewish practice.
The Torah (Exodus 31:16-17) states: “Veshamru Bnei Yisrael et haShabbat la’asot et haShabbat ledorotam brit olam. Beini u’vein Bnei Yisrael ot hee le’olam ki sheshet yamim asah Hashem et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz u’vayom hashevi’i shavat va’yinafash – The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel, it is a sign forever that in a six-day period G-d made the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day He relaxed and He rested.”
The uniqueness of Shabbat is that it serves as a sign between G-d and the Jewish people of our uniqueness before G-d.
We find “signs” elsewhere in the Torah, such as when G-d instructs Noah to leave the ark: “Vayomer Elokim zot ot habrit asher ani notein beini u’veineichem u’vein kol nefesh chaya asher it’chem ledorot olam – G-d said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between Me and you, and every living being that is with you, for all future generations.’ ” The next verse continues, “Et kashti natati be’anan ve’hayta le’ot brit beini u’vein ha’aretz – I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12-13).
We also find a sign mentioned in G-d’s command to Abraham in Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 17:11) concerning circumcision: “U’nemaltem et besar orlat’chem ve’haya le’ot brit beini u’veineichem – You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”
Finally, we find in Parshat VaEt’chanan (Deuteronomy 6:8) regarding the mitzvah of tefillin: “U’keshartam le’ot al yadecha vehayu letotafot bein eineicha – You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”
The above references, however, are different from the verses regarding Shabbat, to which the Torah explicitly refers as a sign between G-d and the Jewish people.
The Gemara (Shabbos 10b) cites a baraita based on a verse in Parshat Ki Tissa (Exodus 31:13): “Ve’ata dabber el Bnei Yisrael lemor, ach et shabtotai tishmoru ki ot hee beini u’veineichem ledoroteichem lada’at ki ani Hashem mekaddish’chem – And you, speak to the Children of Israel saying, ‘Just observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, to know that I am G-d who sanctifies you.’ ” The Gemara continues, “Hashem said to Moses, ‘I possess a valued present that is stored in My treasury, and Shabbat is its name, and I wish to give it to Israel; go and tell them….’ ”
This precious present is also unique in that its observance bears testimony to ma’aseh bereishit, as the Torah states (Genesis 2:1-3): “Va’yechulu hashamayim veha’aretz vechol tzeva’am. Va’yechal Elokim bayom hashevi’i melachto asher asa vayishbot bayom hashevi’i mikol melachto asher asa. Va’yevarech Elokim et yom hashevi’i va’yekaddesh oto ki vo shavat mikol melachto asher bara Elokim la’asot – Thus the heaven and the earth were completed, and all their array. G-d completed on the seventh day His work which He had done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work which G-d created to do.”
This might partially explain the mesirut nefesh that some have exhibited in regard to this unique mitzvah throughout the generations. Stories abound of the difficulties in keeping Shabbat for Jews who immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century. Not only was the general population unsympathetic to the plight of the Sabbath observer, but so were many Jewish employers who came with an earlier wave of immigration and had unfortunately assimilated. Thus, a Jew who wished to practice his religion was given a hard choice: “Observe the Sabbath or put bread on your table.” Unfortunately, many did not withstand the challenge.
Today, we are fortunate that many states and localities have passed laws to protect Sabbath observers. These laws prevent employers from discriminating against current or prospective employees who wish to leave a little early on Friday to prepare for Shabbat while making up the time on other days of the week. But even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, no such protections existed at all, let alone at the turn of the twentieth century when Jewish immigration to the United States exploded.
My own grandfather, Reb Simcha Kirschner z”l, a scholarly Jew, was one of those people faced with the economic challenge of keeping Shabbat. It goes without saying that he made the proper choice, and Shabbat reigned supreme in his home. Thus it was many a Sunday that found him in search of a job. Indeed, for many years there was no milk in the house and fruit was very rare and looked upon as a delicacy.
There are two stories that stand out in particular among the many that I remember my mother, a”h, telling me regarding her parents. My grandfather wanted the younger children to have some fresh air, so on a Sunday he would often take them to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. As a special treat he would bring along a single apple and cut it equally in four parts for his children (my mother being the youngest). Indeed, my mother suffered from anemia her entire life due to her early childhood diet.
Another story was about my aunt Tzivia who had a very close friend, Sura. My aunt would go to Sura’s house very often and at times would be there at dinnertime. She would come back home and regale the family with all the details of the wonderful food served at Sura’s house. Her father was able to provide a lavish table as he worked on Shabbat. My mother related that at least one time, when her sister came home with her dinner food tales, my grandmother asked her, “Un zei hut dir eppes gegeben – And did they give you anything?” It was obvious that my grandmother wished not only to expose a lack of generosity in that home, but to protect her own family’s Sabbath observance.
These two stories are not unique to my grandparents’ household. Rather, they were repeated many times over as Jews sought to follow the path of their parents and all the generations before them in a strange new land. In fact, due to this stark choice with which they were confronted, this land was referred to as both the “goldeneh medina – the golden land” and the “treifene medina – the unholy [unkosher] land.”
It therefore became de rigueur for fully observant Jews to style themselves with the appellation “shomer Shabbat.” Note that the term by which they referred to themselves and which would appear on most retail food signage was one that that proclaimed Sabbath observance (as opposed to other, or all, mitzvot). Why not use a term like “shomer Torah u’mitzvot”? The answer is simple. Though the observance of Shabbat is just one aspect of Judaism, it is one that clearly identifies a Jew and is an unmistakable indicator of his or her level of commitment.
(To be continued)
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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