Is Half-Shabbos Really No Shabbos?

As an Orthodox rabbi who works closely with teenagers and their parents, I am pleased that your magazine confronts important issues in our community. In general, the articles not only point out problems that exist within the Orthodox population but describe possible solutions to these challenges. However, the spring issue contained an article that is more harmful than helpful and reflects a growing trend in the Orthodox community to broadly categorize and degrade teenagers who may be struggling with aspects of their religious observance.

I found Jonathan Rosenblum’s article “Half Shabbos Is No Shabbos” to be problematic, on both halachic and educational grounds.

We obviously put serious weight on Shabbat observance. Beyond the specific mitzvot associated with the day, Shabbat serves an essential role as a theological and historical anchor for our community. But is “half Shabbos no Shabbos”? Even if this was not the intent of the article, the extreme formulation sends a message to teenagers who are not perfect in their observance that their positive engagement with Shabbat has no merit. Ironically, we would never say this to a public school teenager in NCSY, but we are willing to denigrate a struggling yeshivah student as being a “half-Shabbos” or even a “no-Shabbos” observer.

The article also failed to mention that quite a few teenagers are still figuring out their places within the community, while many others have theological questions that need to be addressed. Contrary to the impression drawn from the article, many teenagers who text on Shabbat come from homes in which the parents actively embrace the Shabbat experience and even sing zemirot. There are no simple, magical formulas that guarantee teenage obedience in a generation of abnormal winds. Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, the late chief rabbi of Israel, believed, based on a Tosafot on Baba Kamma 27b, that “the-apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree” guarantee to parents regarding their children’s observance is applicable only when the winds are normal.

The gemara in Shabbat (70a) establishes the concept of “chiluk melachot,” that each of the thirty-nine categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat is treated independently. While this could lead to multiple punishments for individual violations, it reinforces the concept that one violation does not by itself obliterate an individual’s total Shabbat observance. We do not tell one who has tragically violated even several prohibited activities to throw in the towel with regard to observing the rest of Shabbat. Texting on Shabbat, while clearly a violation, does not mean that no Shabbat is left for this struggling teenager. In fact,  the Ramban in Shemot (20:8) highlights the value of all of the positive mitzvot associated with Shabbat. He opines that a mitzvat aseh is even more meaningful in our relationship with Hashem than a mitzvat lo ta’aseh. To the Ramban, engaging in a mitzvat aseh is a sign of love between us and our Creator. Clearly the Ramban is not justifying violating the Shabbat, but he is stressing how essential positive actions are in developing a relationship with Hashem. Many, if not most, of the teenagers described in the article appear to be much more than “half-Shabbos” and “no-Shabbos” Jews. While their Shabbat violations cannot be condoned, we cannot dismiss their participation in the many positive aspects of Shabbat observance such as Kiddush, seudat Shabbat and tefillah. The more we tend to identify them as “half-Shabbos” Jews, the greater chance they will become completely non-observant Jews.

We need to treat teenagers in the Orthodox community with the same sensitivity that we treat potential ba’alei teshuvah. While we should always strive for maximum observance and never concede to halachic compromise, we should not ignore what the Maharal (Netivot Olam-Netiv Avodah, Chap. 5) called “sechar pesiot,” the reward for every step we take. A more balanced perspective and an embracing approach could enhance the entire Shabbat experience for our community.

Rabbi Shalom Baum
Rav, Congregation Keter Torah
Teaneck, New Jersey

This article was featured in the Fall 2012 issue of Jewish Action.
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