This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

You Have Mail*

The many restrictions that define the traditional Jewish Sabbath are not always to everyone's taste. I have found, however, that there is one feature that rarely fails to impress people who have had no previous experience of Sabbath observance.

I am referring to the ability to ignore the ringing of a telephone.

In watching an Orthodox Jew sit nonchalantly as the nudnik appliance keeps crying out for attention, we realize how enslaved we were to it during the other days of the week. Ironically, the aspects of Shabbat observance that involve non-use of electricity are, of course, modern innovations that have no clear precedents in ancient or medieval Judaism. While a virtual consensus has developed regarding the fact of the prohibition, the rabbis are not all that clear when it comes to explaining it. Nevertheless, being unplugged is probably the single most conspicuous identifier of the Biblical Day of Rest for observant Jews today.

Though earlier generations did not have to deal with the demands of the telephone, they did have to cope with written mail and with the question of whether it could be read on the Sabbath. The Talmud cites a ruling that one should not read "profane documents" on the holy day, and the later commentators were in disagreement about what kinds of documents were included in this prohibition.

Rashi initially supported a broad definition that encompassed not only commercial bills and the like, which are obviously inappropriate on the Sabbath, but also simple personal correspondence. Rashi's students challenged his interpretation, noting that it did not reflect the widespread practice. Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre pointed out that a newly arrived letter might possibly contain urgent matters involving life-or-death issues, and hence it would be permissible to open and read it. Rashi's grandson Rabbi Jacob Tam took this reasoning a step further, and argued that if the recipient was already familiar with the contents of the letter (for example, if it had arrived and been read earlier in the week), then there re-reading it on the Sabbath would not actually accomplish anything, and therefore cannot be defined as a act of labour that could be forbidden on the Sabbath.

As cited in the Tosafot commentary to the Talmud, the authorities make it clear that the point of their controversy is limited to correspondence, where a reasonable likelihood exists that its contents will have some measure of urgency. By no means do they consider permitting as Sabbath reading material "those war epics composed in the vernacular"--that is, works like the Chanson de Roland and other troubadour romances and tales of chivalry that were popular among the Jewish readership. In fact, the Tosafot add wryly, "Rabbi Isaac did not know who allowed them to be read on weekdays."

In a society when most of our communications are done by means of the telephone or other electronic media, it is doubtful if most of us (other than physicians, police or other emergency workers) would consider seriously the chances that any snail-mail message might be critically urgent. Nevertheless, persistent ringing might impel some individuals to pick up the telephone receiver just in case.

A rabbi's son once related to me such an experience, when the unceasing ringing of the telephone, into the late hours of Friday night finally persuaded his father to answer the phone on the assumption that the call was about a life-or-death emergency.

As it turned out, at the other end of the line was a congregant who wanted the address of a Jewish publisher.

That incident was considerably more benign than the ordeals faced by students of Martin Buber. The celebrated existentialist philosopher was so hostile to the observance of religious law--which he felt to place barriers in the way of a direct I-Thou relationship with the Almighty--that he could not stomach the fact that several of his most distinguished and devoted disciples were traditionally observant Jews.

One of those students, the eminent educational philosopher Akiva Ernst Simon, had a policy of answering the telephone on the Sabbath if it rang more than fifteen times, which constituted sufficient proof for him that the matter was urgent. Unfortunately, Buber was aware of Simon's policy, and made it his custom to periodically telephone his student on Shabbat, ringing persistently until he was answered, and then he would mockingly chastise him for answering.

Compared to the problems posed by today's telephones and e-mails, Rashi and the other rabbis of earlier times had an easy time of it deciding whether or not to read newly arrived letters. Lacking all the distractions of our Information Age, they could find the time and concentration to produce commentaries and responsa that had truly lasting worth.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:


  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, September 14 2000, p. 12.

  • Bibliography:
    • Diamond, Malcolm L. 1968. Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist, Harper Torchbooks. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row.
    • Simon, Ernst. 1948. Martin Buber: His Way Between Thought and Deed. Jewish Frontier, February 1948, 25.
    • Simon, Ernst. 1958. Martin Buber and the Faith of Israel. Iyyun: Hebrew Philosophical Quarterly 9 (1):13-50.