The Shabbes Goy [1]

A popular perception that is encouraged by modern apologists for traditional Judaism as well as by its opponents portrays Jewish religious law, halakha, as a static corpus that has remained unchanged through the vicissitudes of history.

For anyone who has a closer familiarity with Jewish sources it is clear that this has never been the case.

The halakha, as the principal expression of Jewish religiosity throughout our history, has served as a means by which Jews have interacted, as individuals and as a community, with the realities of life. Halakha does indeed have a history, which is integral to any complete understanding of the Jewish past.

No one has succeeded as well in chronicling the story of Jewish law as Prof. Jacob Katz of Jerusalem. His life's work, which has earned him the prestigious Israel Prize for Jewish History, has taken him through the dry-looking tomes of talmudic commentaries, Jewish law codes and rabbinic responsa, in order to unearth new insights into the religious and social history of the Jewish people.

What distinguishes Katz's research is the broad variety of perspectives which he brings to bear on the material. He does not confine himself to explaining the legal argumentation. He also interprets it from the context of religious and intellectual history, and as an indication of the workings of Jewish society and economics through the ages.

The current study shows Katz at his finest.

No Benefit

The Yiddish phrase chosen for the title of his book is in itself a reflection of the problematic nature of its topic.

The rich Hebrew-Aramaic lexicon of Jewish legal discourse does not have a term to designate the phenomenon under discussion: the employing of non-Jews to perform tasks that a Jew himself cannot perform because of the Sabbath or other ritual restrictions. Although modern Hebrew has coined a phrase, Goy shel Shabbat, used as the title of the Hebrew original of this book, that expression is simply a translation of the Yiddish term.

The fact is that Jewish law, as reflected in the Talmud, is quite clear on the point that, just as a Jew is forbidden himself to perform acts of labour on the Sabbath, so is he prohibited from benefiting from work that is done for his sake by a Gentile.

Though the prohibition was generally regarded as being of a somewhat lower degree of stringency (of rabbinic rather than biblical origin) and it is subject to some exceptions--in emergencies, for the performance of important religious precepts, in certain types of partnership or contract relationships--is was nonetheless a fact of Talmudic law.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Popular practice tended to regard the restrictions from a different perspective. The common people tended to view the Sabbath in a narrow, ritualistic sense, as a set of "taboos" that only affect the behaviour of individuals, but do not prevent Jews from benefiting from actions that are performed for them by Gentiles.

To Curb or To Cope

The greater part of Katz's study focuses on the medieval and modern communities of central and eastern Europe. More than their Sephardic counterparts, the Ashkenazic rabbis attached considerable weight to the established customs of their communities, even when the prevalent practice seemed to conflict with the Talmud.

The rabbis would often propose bold re-interpretations of the relevant talmudic passages, seeking to expand the options for permissive rulings. For example, Rabbi Jacob Tam, always a halakhic maverick, argued that the very act of earning a living is in itself a religious mitzvah that can serve as grounds for bending the restrictions.

Much of the book consists of meticulous descriptions of the ways in which halachic scholars coped with the popular tendency to employ Gentiles to do jobs that they themselves could not do.

In some instances this involved straightforward prohibitions. More often, the rabbi would suggest an alternative way of making the situation more acceptable, often through the use of legal fictions such as a formal sale of a business along the lines of the practice used for leaven on Passover.

In most of the cases, it seems that the rabbis were looking for ways to grant retroactive sanction to practices that they could not curb. One of the most commonly repeated phrases in the book is the talmudic dictum, "Better that they should sin inadvertently than by intention," a testimony to the resigned frustration felt by halakhic authorities unable to make their communities conform to the real demands of Jewish law.

The important questions debated by the rabbis relate, for the most part, to economic rather than domestic life. Jews would find themselves involved in businesses that had to remain open on Saturday, either because they were contracted to the government or because the employees were Christian and the five-day work week was yet undreamed of.

In addition to the legal questions involved, Katz uses the halakhic materials to paint a fascinating picture of the economic activities pursued by Jews, especially in the modern era. But to this reviewer's mind, the most interesting sections of this book are those that describe the complex considerations that guided the Orthodox leadership in the polarized Jewish communities of 19th century Russia and Hungary.

The Enlightenment and the Reform movement were making strong inroads, and the Orthodox rabbinical authorities realized that their decisions could not be made simply on the merits of the cases. A ruling that was too lenient could be viewed as a concession to the forces of change, while excessive stringency was likely to alienate those who were sympathetic to the tradition, but would find it financially onerous to close their businesses for two days a week.

The rabbis who were consulted tried first to ascertain where the questioners stood ideologically. The general tendency was to choose the stricter options, a decision which seems to contribute to the decline of Orthodoxy in these communities.

In general, this readable book can serve as a model for how the study of halakha can open a window to a dazzling variety of issues in the history of Jewish society and religion.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JS, Feb. 3 1990.