Photo Credit: Jewish Press
Chaim Saiman

The transition of hilchot Shabbat from the agrarian laws of the Mishna to the rules that structure Shabbat in the digital age stands as one the great accomplishments of contemporary halacha.

Though most of the 39 melachot are no longer part of our daily lives, halacha succeeds in restricting our weekday and workday activities while creating vibrant walkable communities focused on bonds of friendship and religious institutions. The American weekend means that observing Shabbat no longer creates severe economic disruptions for most, even as many people must work hard to make our Shabbat rest possible. And despite differences in opinion and practice, there is a high degree of consensus over what Shabbat should look like and what its halachot entail. This allows Shabbat to serve as a point of unity across many observant communities.


All this contrasts with Shemittah, the other Shabbat which has proven far more difficult to translate into twenty-first century terms. There is little consensus on how the Torah’s social vision should apply to our present condition, whether viewed in terms of tilling the soil or understanding what Shemittah means in an economy that runs on high tech rather than agriculture. Shemittah has been reduced to another sub-part of kashrus certification that we argue over, while the Torah’s impressive spiritual and economic aspirations remain unfulfilled. Let us draw strength from Shabbat as we work towards realizing the goals of shabbat ha’aretz.


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Chaim Saiman is Professor of Law & Chair in Jewish Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.