Snow and Shabbos

shoveling-snowMaimonidies explains our midrash by reference to the related instance of rabbinic religious psychology: “God’s presence is never felt in a state of sadness or lethargy or levity or conversation or distractedness, but only amid the joy of performing a mitzvah.”

-Ismar Schorsch
quoting Bavli Shabbat 30b.
“The Seedbed of Prophecy,” pg 165 (December 21, 1996)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I read this on Shabbat after shoveling snow off of my driveway and sidewalk. Actually, I also shoveled the snow off of the sidewalks of my two next door neighbors. It was a mitzvah of a sort. I try to do a little more than required because I know it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s something God built into me for some reason.

But I was performing one mitzvah (I don’t think the Bible says to specifically shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk, but it does say to love your neighbor, so I figure helping them with shoveling snow qualifies as “love”) but I was breaking another, well, sort of. It depends on whether or not you believe that non-Jewish believers are obligated to observe Shabbos in the manner of the Jews. I know that the Didache, an early document dated to the second or even first centuries and purportedly used to train new Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah entering the Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” states that even a Gentile may keep the entire “yoke of the Lord” (i.e. Torah commandments) if they (we) are able, but if not, to keep what we can, so keeping the Sabbath in some manner is on my radar screen as an option.

On the other hand, the two Jewish members of my household (and the other two Jewish family members who have their own households) don’t observe Shabbos, though I believe they are obligated to do so.

But I’m not the religious police. Each person must negotiate their own relationship with God. Past efforts of mine suggesting to my family that they take a more observant path have resulted in a rebuke and a reminder that they themselves must make those sorts of decisions.

And so they must. My remaining option for the sake of peace in the family is to pray and to rely on God to lead His own back to Him, even as Messiah will lead all the Jewish exiles back to redemption in the Land of Israel.

In reading the quote from Schorsch (and Maimonidies), I tried to recall if I felt joy when shoveling snow and if I felt the Presence of God. I have to admit that I didn’t experience either state. There was a sense of satisfaction at the realization that I was exceeding my property lines and doing what wasn’t expected of me, but I can’t say I had any sort of religious revelation. I don’t think living a life before God or doing the right thing is magic. I think it’s just what we’re supposed to do.

I also believe that no one “does it” perfectly, and I’m a living example of that.

If anything, I have a greater sense of the presence of God when I reading the Bible, when I’m studying the Torah Portion, when I’m contemplating a Psalm, even when I’m writing a blog post about God and the mitzvot.

I know people (online) who do a much better job at observing Shabbos. Some of them live in places like Colorado and Wisconsin, places that get a lot of snow. What do they do on the Shabbat when it’s snowing, just let it sit on their driveways and sidewalks?

I live in a suburban neighborhood that has a homeowner’s association (whether I like it or not) and the association has a covenant which states that each homeowner is responsible for keeping the sidewalks in front of their homes free (reasonably) of snow. We are also legally responsible if we fail to do so and a pedestrian falls and is injured as a result. So I have a duty to protect my neighbors by keeping my sidewalks clean, even on the Shabbat.

I know some people who would be rather rigid and dictatorial about such a suggestion, saying God’s commandment to observe Shabbat trumps any law or other responsibility assigned by human beings, but let’s look at that. I have a duty to love my neighbors which could be interpreted as protecting them from harm. I know there’s a Torah commandment that specifies if you see someone drowning in a body of water and you do nothing to help save their life, you have sinned against that person and against God (Rabbinic interpretation does say however, that if you are a poor swimmer and would be likely to drown too, you are absolved of this responsibility).

So what’s the higher duty, to perform an act on the Shabbat that at least in potential, could prevent a neighbor from being harmed, or to observe the Shabbat and ignore my neighbors by playing the “I’m keeping the Shabbat, look at how holy I am” card?

It’s an interesting question.

Of course, returning to my lack of actual obligation to observe a strict Shabbat, at least in the present age, I am not in quite the same bind as a Jewish person. I also believe the commandment to love one’s neighbor is universal, particularly since we see it occurring not only in Leviticus 19:18, but issuing from the mouth of Jesus (see Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31).

I know there is a part of Shabbat observance that is also universal, since such observance acknowledges God’s Creative Sovereignty, but I will have to be satisfied with acknowledging God’s creation of human beings by doing something, even on Shabbat, that is of service to some of those “creations.”

I try to spend most of my Saturdays in prayer, in study, in recording my contemplations on God, but it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s very far from perfect. But what I desire and am unable to accomplish today, may God grant me a life in the world to come where I may observe His peace and His perfection.

And as I write this, it’s still snowing outside.

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15 thoughts on “Snow and Shabbos”

  1. Does your homeowner’s association covenant happen to stipulate how quickly one is expected to begin clearing snow from walkways? When I lived in the USA, in a region which had its own respectable share of snowfall, the expectation was to begin clearing within some number of hours after snow ceased to fall. Nonetheless, I know of no cases where any strict enforcement was applied, nor would it be easy to verify if any given homeowner was even present within such a time period to comply. Hence, it was not difficult to postpone such activity until the end of Shabbat, though at times the cost of doing so was that the snow would harden or ice would form and become more difficult to remove.

  2. I inserted the information about the home owner’s association as an influential factor, but it wasn’t the only one. I also mentioned a more general duty to my neighbors in providing a safe environment around my house, plus as you’ll recall, both Jewish members of my family work on Shabbat, so the missus would probably balk at me “claiming” a Shabbat’s rest (we’ve had this conversation before) when I’m not Jewish.

    That goes a long way to explaining why I may not be able to look forward to a Shabbat’s rest until the world to come, assuming it is in God’s will for me.

  3. Thanks, Sean. Although for my own part, finding a balance isn’t always easy. The Master said that the gate is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14) but by inference, the path must be as well.

  4. I don’t agree with the comment of the Rambam, and that might put me in hot water with some Jewish authorities: “God’s presence is never felt in a state of sadness or lethargy or levity or conversation or distractedness, but only amid the joy of performing a mitzvah.” Just the opposipte is very clear throughout Tanakh. I suppose for myself, there is joy in performing a mitzvah, but a different kind of joy in learning something new from study or hearing a word in prayer.

    Judaism has solved your problem with the shabbos goy, but according to torah, I don’t think that idea passes muster. So, I don’t know what to think. I would assume in ancient times, people who had animals needed to care for them on the Shabbat, but could refrain from any unneeded activity. I do feel that Shabbat is a special spiritual place, where the veil between heaven and earth is just a bit thinner and the glass a bit less cloudy. I believe some of these thoughts are related to Rabbi Nachman’s, “7th Heaven.”

  5. I think those who embrace the Shabbat, not just by a physical rest, but by wholly turning their minds and hearts to God do experience something of His Presence, and a foretaste of the Messianic Age to come. But sometimes human beings get in the way.

  6. Embracing Shabbat to the fullest is something that we fall short of in our household as well. I don’t have any scripture to back up my own personal beliefs, but I do believe that if you’re being dumped on with snow, and absolutely need to keep up with it or else you’ll have a broken back the next evening from moving 12 inches of snow off of your walkway/drive the next evening.. perhaps you should keep doing what you do. If you’re not likely to engulf yourself completely in prayer and study on Shabbat, or would be one to sit on the couch typically on a day like this watching television or something, I really don’t see the issue with shoveling snow. At least you are being dilligent, and going above and beyond in helping out your neighbors. And if our claiming a day of shabbos rest, I think it’s probably not a good thing to go and cause the problems. I suppose if it’s something you feel you need to do, you may have to speak with your wife about it, and see if she agrees or not. If she needs the driveway shoveled to get home- that’s obviously got to happen. I do not see that as breaking any commandments , if it’s a necessity that your other 2 family members get home, and not have to park on the street.. I too see it as a good deed, and I think that God would be delighted that you help your neighbors.. I have often thought that since I am NOT Jewish, that going out and helping people on Shabbat is probably not going to harm my soul, but may actually help me. If I were converting to Judaism, I would think very deeply on the subject, but because I currently am not, I do not worry too much on the subject. I do think about it on occasion though. While I am not Jewish, my family and I will serve the Lord- and the only criticism we will encounter from trying to be more torah observant is from human flesh, which does not really matter, though it may hurt- especially when coming from family. I believe that God welcomes us as “outsiders” as I have been called myself- to try and follow as we can. We do not have to step on toes, or try to be “Jewish” but again, I personally see no reason why we cannot follow right along side, as it was obviously done in the past. 😉 I do not know how it will affect our souls.. but I cannot see how God would frown upon it. If he does, help all of us Gentile believers! I think you have found a happy medium, and you’re doing well when contemplating the subject.

  7. Keeping a better Shabbos is a desire but based on my understanding of Acts 15 plus my investigation into the Didache, I don’t think that I am currently obligated to observe a Shabbat in the manner of Jewish people, though having more of a Shabbat in my life would certainly be desirable. As far as any family discussions or debates go, I’ve already had those and have determined to keep peace in the family by not belaboring the point right now.

  8. I remember when my kids were little, there was no such thing as a moment, much less a day of rest. I could have used a shabbos goy to babysit 🙂 Now I can spend the day reading, catching up on my studies, just thinking and musing. I don’t follow the halacha of cleaning and cooking all day on Friday, and have ordered pizza for dinner (prior to Shabbat) because that’s what the kids wanted.

    This has saved a lot of arguments, like when I spent all day cooking and hubby comes home and says he is not hungry because he stopped on the way home from work for pizza, and there is a great pizza place on his way home. He works mostly flexi-place now, but I can understand that with a 90 minute commute, he decides to take a break half-way and have some dinner.

  9. …but I can understand that with a 90 minute commute, he decides to take a break half-way and have some dinner.

    Well, he could have called. 😉

    I remember when my kids were little, there was no such thing as a moment, much less a day of rest. I could have used a shabbos goy to babysit…

    I think most mothers realize that they have a responsibility to take care of their little ones, and certainly I’d expect God to understand, since He knows how much they need their parents….just like we need Him.

  10. If we have to apologize for doing things for the welfare of others on Shabbat what kind of God do we serve?

  11. @Steve — One may ask, however, if it is possible to have one’s cake and also eat it — or in this case to learn the delicate artistry of balancing the blessings of keeping the Shabbat and those of pursuing the well-being of others when they appear to conflict. We serve a truly ingenious G-d, Whom we can imitate in applying our own gifts of ingenuity to discover how to escape the trials that may test and challenge our resistance against the shortcomings of multiple possibilities to sin in one manner or another (viz: 1Cor.10:13). For Jews, violating the Shabbat is a deadly-serious sin (just ask the man who was stoned for gathering wood on Shabbat), just as much as is callous disregard of another’s life or even their well-being. If we really care for one anothers’ well-being, we must take well-planned precautions in our societies to prevent conflicts with the Shabbat insofar as is humanly possible, so that it will be exceedingly rare to be needing to pull the proverbial sheep out of any pit into which it might fall on the Shabbat. For example, institute a program of regular inspections for all pit coverings and the fences enclosing them to ensure that they will not break during the course of any given Shabbat to allow any foolish sheep to fall in. Provide also halakhic fences around the keeping of Shabbat to guard against accidental violations. While childcare does not in itself require violating the Shabbat, it wouldn’t be amiss to plan some sort of schedule of volunteers to relieve overstressed mothers who also need to recharge their spiritual resources. The notion of Shabbat-keeping is a stimulus for all sorts of ingenuity regarding human (and sheepish) well-being.

  12. At least as far as I know, traditional synagogues don’t provide infant/toddler care the way most churches do. I was about 7 or 8 when I started Hebrew school. My parents just dropped me off and never attended synagogue anyway. Also, the children’s classes are not drop-in; a synagogue visitor couldn’t just drop their older kids off with the Shabbat school. There is a good reason for that, in that education is taken seriously. The parent registers the child for Hebrew school classes, pays for the program and permanent teachers are hired and real curriculum is used. We even got report cards. They don’t use volunteers and a slap-dash program. I didn’t think that the classes I attended were that high quality, but educational programs today are much better designed.

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