Judaism: What's Wrong with Driving a Car on Shabbat?

Some pertinent halakhic and hashkafa issues.
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013 6:10 PM


Q. What is wrong with going in a car on Shabbat?

A. Shabbat is the Jewish time-out period when we withdraw from the pace and pressure of the outside world. One day a week we return to the Garden of Eden. We push aside our concerns about buying and selling, moving person and property from place to place, changing and exploiting the world. We concentrate on our souls, hearts and minds, ourselves and our families. Utilising transport, especially driving a car, symbolises activities which have no place in our Shabbat existence.
From the halachic standpoint, pressing the accelerator of a car releases fuel into the combustion chamber of the engine where it is ignited, thereby transgressing the Biblical prohibition of Mavir, kindling a fire on Shabbat.

There are circumstances in which, technically, certain modes of transport could theoretically be utilised on Shabbat, but they mostly entail mar’it ayin, giving other people the wrong impression, and in conceptual terms they don’t fit into the Shabbat mode. However, with regard to travel by ship, if you embark before Shabbat and most passengers are not Jewish, the t’chum Shabbat (the Sabbath limit of 2000 cubits – 0.94 km or 1.16 km depending on your definition) does not apply to travel by sea.
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The Book of Esther is one of a handful of self-contained Biblical novelettes. Others are Ruth and Jonah – all of them tales to which we return year by year with immense affection.

This is not to suggest that these books lack their serious themes or literary and historical difficulties. As far as Esther is concerned a number of recent writers such as Stephen Rosenberg and Yoram Hazony have written convincing studies that place the Purim events in a context of Persian history. No-one these days would dream of arguing that the Book is a fabrication from beginning to end (a century ago a non-Jewish author called the story “wild and improbable”). On the contrary no-one can understand the political, social or even religious history of ancient Persia without seeing the M’gillah as a valuable historical resource.

There still remains, however, the problem of whether it is a valid approach to history writing to tell a Jewish story from a Jewish point of view.

The answer is quite clear. Autobiography, even community autobiography – the story of a group told by themselves – is an accepted literary genre. Did the events really happen in the way the author/s suggest? Admittedly it is all a question of perception and a different author or group of authors might see things from a different perspective, but the advantage of autobiography is that it is vivid and full of human interest and whether it is completely objective or not isn't the point. It is always open to someone else to retrace the events from a different point of view.
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The sidra commences with a command to bring an offering to God.

Over the centuries the response has taken four forms – spiritual yearning, individual and communal prayer, ethical conduct and practical observances.

The 19th century ushered in an Age of Elimination with its question, “How much can I eliminate and still be Jewish?” A few Jews tried to remove themselves totally from the Jewish fold but without great success. The Holocaust put paid to the notion that one could be disguised enough to escape being treated as a Jew.
Hollywood was full of Jews who changed their names and pretended to be gentiles but their Jewish origins came back to haunt them. Currently some Jews try to keep their Jewish identity quiet in order not to be blamed for Israel’s real or imagined sins, but it hardly ever works.

More important is the strain of Jewish identity which calls itself secular and seeks to be Jewish without God. An out-of-date battle now that there is a general return to tradition (in the USA the increasingly powerful Jewish group is orthodoxy) and the question really is, “How much tradition do I need?”

Very few Jews throw off the totality of tradition. Sabbath candles and the Seder are alive and well; even the secularists say the b’rachot that praise the God they reject. They even belong to synagogues and give their children a Jewish education.

As Rav Kook used to say, even the atheists turn out to be believers.

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Depiction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem
One of the best known verses in the Torah is in this week’s reading – V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).

Commentators often focus on the phrase, “in their midst”. We might have expected “in its midst”. But what the Torah emphasises is the people who made it and worshipped in its midst. A place of worship can become an empty shell unless it has a living congregation. But there are other lessons – for example, why require a sanctuary at all? Doesn't Isaiah say (66:1) that the whole universe belongs to God, so why put up a specific building? Isaiah also says, “The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3).

Sforno suggests that everything changed after the incident of the Golden Calf. The concept of a ubiquitous God was too sophisticated. The Israelites needed a physical focus. But the sages say the mikdash was always part of the plan. The issue was timing. Not, “Why have a mikdash?” but “when shall a mikdash be built?” The answer? “When mankind shows that it needs a symbol”.’

Without visible symbols, religion is too difficult for many people. Freedom is a basic ethic, but without Pesach it might evaporate. God’s presence is everywhere, but it is harder to grasp without waving the Four Species on Sukkot to show that He is in all corners of the Creation.