Friday, May 29, 2009

What do we mean by "melacha?"

Dovbear has an interesting post on a controversy over a Baltimore JCC's decsion to open its doors on Shabbat. It's worth reading, and perhaps even necessary to fully understand what I'm going to write here.

Dovbear argues that most Jews keep Shabbat in one way shape or form, but also notes that "Officially shabbos is only 'kept' when you refrain from melacha in testimony of the fact that God created the world/took us out of Egypt." To me the hinge question is what do we mean by "melacha." Chazal tended to view "melacha" as the 39 tasks they deemed necessary for the building of the tabernacle. This is an important principle to which I will return in a bit when I discuss shabbat in the life of a rabbi. For me "melacha" means my occupation.

I do computer support for a living. My definition of "melacha," therefore, is fixing broken computers, or answering questions about computers. My community has learned not to approach me with computer problems on Shabbat, though some will say "I wonder if you could look at something after Havdallah." This then is my boundary for what I absolutely positively will not do on Shabbat. On the other hand, blogging is expressly forbidden to me in my workplace, and thus falls outside of my definition of Melacha. Hence I am posting on a Festival day. If the computer needs fixing before I could post, the post would wait.

What about a rabbi? What comprises melacha for him or her? If the rabbi is standing on the Bima leading a service on Shabbat, is he or she not working at at an occupation? Is this not what they are paid to do? There is of course the legal fiction that a rabbi is not paid to be a rabbi, but rather that a rabbi is paid to not be something else. This is a legal fiction, and therefore a fiction and does not apply. This is where the 39 tasks come in. The 39 tasks are derived from the Toraitic principle that one should not build the sanctuary on Shabbat. To my mind, that is the principle that anyone engaged in Synagogue business, whether Rabbi, Board Member, or Committee member should heed. The rabbi should not be dealing with budgets, planning, personnel searches and the like on Shabbat, and nor should anyone else. This is "building the sanctuary" but if a Rabbi wishes to worship with the community and the community wishes to grant the Rabbi the honor of being Shaliach Tzibbur, this is acceptable. And of course, for a rabbi to study with the community is both acceptable and good.

This also brings me around to something else I don't do on Shabbat or festivals: committee work. This is building the sanctuary, and I don't like to talk about synagogue business on shabbat. Executing a program is another matter - after all I am a Levite, and Levites have ALWAYS been charged with enhancing the worship experience of their fellow Jews. And in today's world those who volunteer to execute a Shabbat or festival program, to run a Shabbaton, and such are enhancing the worship experience for their fellows; as long as it does not break down into the sort of thing that should have happened in a committee meeting, execution is well and good.

So there you have my thoughts on what "melacha" means in Modernity. What tasks would YOU deem forbidden in this framework? What do you refrain from on Shabbat?