The Shabbos Goy – Solidarity or Shanda

June 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The shabbos goy used to annoy me. I don’t mean the goy himself; I never met one. I mean the whole concept.  The Bible says, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). The shabbos goy was the person Jews hired to light their ovens on the Sabbath so they could still cook without technically violating the commandment. Strictly observant Jews extend the fire-kindling prohibition to anything that might start an electric current – turning on the lights, or pushing an elevator button.  Somewhere today, no doubt, a shabbos goy has gone into an Orthodox home, turned on the TV, and tuned it to ESPN for the World Cup.

This legalistic ploy allows Jews to keep the letter of the law while violating its spirit, and I always found it embarrassing. Is this what we want others to see in how Jews practice their religion?  A shanda fur die goyim. It’s sort of like getting around “Thou shalt not kill” by hiring a hit-man goy.  The purpose of the commandment, I thought, is to make everyday life more difficult so that Jews would spend their time worshiping God. Instead, they hire a shabbos goy so they can have their sabbath cake and bake it too.

It wasn’t just the hypocrisy that bothered me. It was the tone that accompanied it – at worst a smug satisfaction, more typically an amiable chuckle – as though there were virtue in putting one over on God.

How unsociological of me. How could I not have remembered Durkheim? Religion – its rituals and rules – is not about suffering or self-denial or carrying out God’s wishes; it’s about group solidarity. The point of the laws is to draw the boundary lines of the group. Like the funny clothes and hair styles, these laws separate Us from Them. These are our laws. They define who we are. It doesn’t matter so much that we believers have also evolved ways to circumvent them.

What reminded me of this was an article in the Atlantic (here) by Dominic Pettman.  (“Dominic, Dominic,” I can hear my grandmother rolling the name around in her head – “interrogating” it, as we might now say - and finally asking point blank: “Is he Jewish?”  I don’t know, Grandma.)  Pettman lives in a building with a shabbos elevator. It is programmed to stop at every floor so that the strictly Orthodox don’t have to push a button. Of course, if you live on a high floor, all those stops take forever.  Jews must suffer. Sometimes.

Pettman chides me for my accusations of hypocrisy.  “Certainly we cannot pretend to know if God is angered by the conceit of the Shabbos elevator, or if He chuckles at the elaborate nature of the solution.” True. Maybe God is totally cool with the shabbos goy, and I am wrong to think that the Jews who hire him are hypocrites. More important, the hypocrisy in this case is sociologically irrelevant.

For the Durkheimian angle, Pettman digs out a copy of a 2003 book by folkorist Alan Dundes, The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges. I’m not sure I agree with all of Dundes’s ideas, for example the one about the “Jewish character” being “culturally and historically drawn to ingenuous workarounds.” Dundes takes the Durkheimian idea to places beyond where I would go. Solidarity, he says, comes not just from the special rules but also from the communal subterfuges for avoiding them and the collective rationalizations for this avoidance.  I disagree, on the basis of no evidence, probably because I would still be embarrassed to think that these “counter customs” (as Dundes calls them) are essential to Jewish solidarity* rather than merely incidental. 

* I should add that I myself have never felt much solidarity with the Orthodox community.

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