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The Music of Halacha: Shabbat Memories

When I was growing up in Toronto, my father zt”l did not allow me to wear gloves on Shabbat. He was worried that I would take them off on the street in order to shake someone’s hand and forget to put them back on, and mistakenly carry them on the street. I didn’t mind that much because it meant that my father would hold my hand in his, inside his coat pocket. A great Shabbat memory.

We always had trouble getting into our apartment building on Shabbat. We couldn’t carry a key so we would have to wait until someone opened the door for themselves. My father would often send me to the rear entrance of the building, next to the parking lot, because it was the more frequently used door.

I was once waiting near the door and this older couple, at least two or three hundred years old – they both had white hair – came walking toward the door. I was freezing and covered with snow and was so relieved that someone was about to let me into the building. “Hey there little boy! Help my wife carry those bags.” “I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot carry on the Shabbat,” I explained.

He looked at me with pure rage, rolled up his sleeve to show his concentration camp tattoo to me, and said, “Do you think you are more religious than my family that died for your God? Use the Eruv!”

I was shaking. “I’m sorry sir, but my father doesn’t let me use the eruv. I will be happy to carry your wife’s bags any other time. I live in apartment 2-B and she can buzz me for help any day other than the Shabbat, but I cannot carry now!”

“So you live in 2-B! Just wait till I visit your mother and tell her how to deal with you!” He walked into the building in a huff and refused to let me in.

I got in a few minutes later and went around to the front of the building to let my father in. I didn’t say a word. I was silently praying that the old man wouldn’t come to the apartment and get me into trouble. (I didn’t want my sisters to have the pleasure!)

Unfortunately, the man and his wife were waiting in front of the door as we stepped out of the stairwell. “Do you know that your son refused to help my wife carry her packages?” The men rolled up his sleeve again and pointed and said, “You have no right to tell me how to keep Shabbat!”

My father looked at him and said, “You are absolutely right. I have no right to say anything to you, but may I ask a question?”

“Of course,” the man replied.

“Would your father have been upset with my son’s actions, or would he have been proud?”

The man began to weep. His father was killed in Auschwitz when he refused to violate the Shabbat.

The couple joined us for the Shabbat meal and spent hours sharing their stories of pre-war Warsaw, the Holocaust and their lives since. They became regular participants in my father’s Wednesday night Bible classes for unaffiliated Jews.

Their great-grandson is a prominent Rosh yeshiva. Another great Shabbat memory.

My regular Friday afternoon assignment was to leave the oven door slightly open so that we would not have to sit for 30 minutes or more until the oven went on. The heating coils automatically went on each time you opened the oven door, unless they were already heating the oven because of the thermostat. The open oven door kept the heating coils on, so we could reach in and take out the food for the Shabbat meal. (Opening the oven the next morning to get the cholent was an adventure of its own.)

One Friday, I rushed out the door to get to the Yeshiva in time for prayers and forgot to open the oven door. When I came home and saw the scowls on the faces of my mother and sisters, I immediately understood what happened.  I had to sit with my eye to the oven door waiting for the coils to begin heating on their own. (The indicator light had broken a few years earlier.)

I could hear my father discussing the Portion of the Week with my sisters as they waited for me to be able to open the door. Of course, my father chose the one time when I could not sit with them at the table to say the most interesting things I ever heard. I experienced something very strange: There was a small voice in my head urging me to shout, “The oven is on,” and open the door. No one would know that I had cheated. I was actually frightened of the thought. I worried that God was punishing me for forgetting to open the oven before Shabbat.

We did eat that night. After the meal, I told my father what happened. “Do you realize how lucky you are? Every second that you waited at that oven door, you were keeping Shabbat in a special way. But when you wanted to cheat, and didn’t, your Shabbat became super holy. You were tempted and fought. Good for you! You are a hero.” Another great Shabbat memory.

The Frigidaire was even more complicated than the oven. We could tape over the button that turned the light on each time we opened the door, but the 1950s refrigerator automatically turned on each time we opened the door. We had to sit next to the door and listen for the motor to go on before we could open the door. We often had non-observant children spend Shabbat with us. For some reason, they considered refrigerator door listening to be strange, at least until my father somehow managed to turn refrigerator listening into a contest! Another great Shabbat memory.

Shabbat is a lot easier these days. I use the Eruv because of health issues. Our refrigerator has a Shabbat switch, with a Hechsher! Our stove and oven also have special Shabbat switches. Crock-pots have lessened the challenges of keeping the cholent hot and moist. Zip lock bags help us avoid all sorts of tearing and building issues. The automatic icemaker, turned off for Shabbat, provides enough ice before Shabbat that we don’t have to consider the Halachot of making ice on Shabbat. My synagogue even has special Shabbat locks so people do not have to carry keys.

Yes, Shabbat is a lot easier. To be honest, I miss oven watching, refrigerator listening, and my father’s hand holding mine inside his coat, and waiting for someone to open the door. I miss all the special care and attention that were so much a part of my childhood that shaped Shabbat.

I also regret that Shabbat observance has become so much easier that people often forget how careful we must be, whether we are searching for a coat that is mixed in with many others that look alike, or opening a bag of chips, or how we select the food we want from a large cholent or even how we load a dishwasher.

It is easier in many ways. It seems to me that it has also become much harder to be aware.

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