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)