“He who wants to enter the holiness of the [Sabbath] day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else….
The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time….
The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn…”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951] pp. 13, 29, 8)
Shabbat is serious business, not only because of its halachic requirements but also because of its magnificent and majestic message. To violate it is not just a transgression but a tragedy. Its desecration undermines what it means to be human and to be a real Jew. It deprives mankind of its own sublimity.
It is not the renouncement of technical progress that Shabbat requires but rather the attainment of some degree of independence from an ever-increasing race and cruel struggle for our physical existence, in which we are all involved and which denies us embracing the presence of an eternal moment.
There is only one sanctity that is even greater than Shabbat and that is the holiness of the human being. When we have to choose between these two sanctities, Jewish law is clear: The human being takes precedence. (Yoma 85b; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 2:3)
If it is true that the Tel Aviv Light Rail and the high-speed train connecting Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim will indeed save countless human lives by having people switch from car to rail, Halacha will without any doubt demand of us to work on Shabbat to complete construction as soon as possible. Any postponement would be a terrible violation of Halacha itself.
But as Jews, let us make it into a celebration. We can observe Shabbat while working on this holy day. Instead of asking non-Jews to take our place, let us gather as many religious Jews as possible to join in this undertaking and do this work in the spirit of Shabbat and Halacha. Here are some suggestions:
We can organize shacks at the work sites where some people will make Kiddush and where a special Shabbat atmosphere will be created and tasteful Shabbat meals, kept warm according to the laws of Shabbat, will be served. There will be alternate minyanim where the workers can hear the reading of the parsha and say their Shabbat prayers in shifts. Participants can sing Shabbat songs and someone can say a nice d’var Torah informing everyone of the great mitzvah they are performing by working on the holy Shabbat so as to save lives.
Lets us give all the workers colored Shabbat helmets and ask all others who stand by to give instructions to wear nice kippot.
There can be flags and ribbons flying and large posters displayed at the work sites proclaiming: “The people of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, observing the Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for eternity.”(Shemot 31:16);“And one shall live by them [My laws]” (Vayikra 18:5)… “and not die because of them.” (Sanhedrin 74a)
Let us make a Jewish celebration out of this. We can show our fellow Israelis and the world that we love Shabbat but that it will not stand in the way of the sanctity of human life. It will actually advance our spirit and commitment to Judaism. Let us reveal that Halacha can deal with the requirements of a modern democratic Jewish state in an unprecedented way.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let us not fail to live up to the challenge of making us all proud to be committed Jews.
After all, is it not Shabbat that made us Jews and that now gives meaning to the State of Israel? Why, in fact, be Jewish if not for this great institution called Shabbat?
Sure, some of my readers will say that these suggestions are insane. But let us not forget what philosopher and writer George Santayana once said: Sanity is madness put to good use.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo