Harry Potter and Shabbos

See my comment at the end of this posting for an update on the actual fining of stores that opened on Shabbat.

3 bMenahemAv
Only in Israel would the hourly news report a storm brewing over whether book stores will indeed violate the Shabbat closing laws and open for sale late Friday night. The cause celebre is the world launching of the final Harry Potter book at 12:01 am July 21 British time, which comes out in Israel on the morning of Shabbat Hazon, at 02:01 am. Eli Yishai, the haredi Shas minister for the Ministry of Industry and Labor, “warns stores over Harry Potter book launch.”
It is within Yishai’s purview to send out non-Jewish (usually Druze) inspectors to fine, indict, and possibly imprison Jewish store owners who open on Shabbat in contravention of the law. (There is a dual prohibition: against opening stores, and against employing Jews on Shabbat).
This led me to ruminate on the subject of religious coercion, a topic treated soberly this week in the Jerusalem Post by YU mashgiach (spiritual guidance counselor) Rabbi Yosef Blau in his op ed “Separation of state and religion? A bad idea.”

I personally opt for educating people about Shabbat, but I can understand the case for “coercion” of Shabbat laws. [In democratic Switzerland, the law forbids you to hang laundry and wash your car in public on Sundays].

When we will read the “curses” in Ki Tavo a few weeks hence, the very last curse is unusual: “Aror asher lo yakim et divrey hatorah Hazot la’asot otam…” (Devarim 27:26). Artscroll: “Accursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them.” One kushiya is in the term lo yakim (literally one who will not uphold) – the verse could have said lo yishmor, lo y’kayaim, lo yishma [will not keep, will not observe, will not listen to]. Why the unusual term (causitive,hif’il ) lo yakim meaning “one who does not make the law stand up”? Ramban takes this to mean to enforce or coerce study/observance. Ramban:

Due to this verse asher lo yakim, King Josiah rent his clothes [when he read this verse because since he was king, he felt it his responsibility to re-institute the authority of the Law], saying, “The duty is upon me to stand up (enforce, coerce) the Law”…..Even if a person learned and taught Torah, observed and fulfilled its commandments, but had the means to enable [others to study/observe the Torah] and did not do so – he is included within the curse. Thus the Rabbis interpreted this “standing up” of the Torah as referring to the royal house and that of the Nasi who have the power to uphold the authority of the Torah over those who annul it. And even if he were a perfectly righteous man in his own deeds, but he could have strengthened the Torah against the power of the wicked ones who annul it [but failed to do so], he is accursed.

Here is another approach: rather than enforcing Shabbat observance by closing stores, Israel should pass a law in the spirit of “goy sheshavat hayav mitta” – a hyperbole expressing the idea that a non-Jew who keeps the Sabbath deserves capital punishment. See Maimonides’ formulation in Laws of the King, 10:9. Rabbi Elhanan Adler wrote a fascinating analysis of the rationale of this law in Tradition a few years ago. This concept is based on the Shabbat being a special gift to the Jewish people, an intimacy between Hashem and His people that does not suffer interlopers. So perhaps the state of Israel should forbid Sabbath observance to all, except for bona fide Jews, and should require people to shop til they drop on Shabbat.

Then Israelis who kvetch about “religious coercion” might appreciate the unique gift we have in Shabbat. They might even forego rushing to purchase Harry Potter at 2 am Shabbos morning.

P.S. It is now motzei Shabbat. See Haaretz article that reports that some stores were indeed fined.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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21 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Eli Ishai has that power under Israeli law. To obey the law, book store owners would need to rent a store in a nearby Arab village for the night, and tell their customers to drive over there or arrange for a bus from their store to the Arab village and back (readers who are dedicated enough to go to a bookstore at 2 a.m. wouldn’t mind driving to a nearby Arab Israeli village). That would be completely legal.

    It would also cause more Chillul Shabbat, and more resentment of Judaism.

  2. Garnel Ironheart says:

    It’s interesting to recall that the reason the Blue Laws (forcing stores to close on Shabbos) were introduced in Israel is because the socialists running the country wanted workers to have a mandatory day off. They chose Saturday for obvious reasons.
    Now the children of those socialists are demanding the right to work seven days a week?

    This is the reason our enemies are doing so well and we’re not these days. People in Israel are screaming that they have to wait a whole 24 hours extra to get the book. I am sure that (a) Harry Potter will probably not be released in most Muslim countries however (b) if the release date coincided with one of their holidays, not only would they delay the release without question and with the support of the populace but they would also try to firebomb JK Rowling’s house and her publisher’s building for daring to release the book on their sacred day.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    The desecration of Shabbos is not the only problem here.

    Wasn’t witchcraft/sorcery something Jews were commanded to blot out? If we were serious about our purpose on earth, no amount of literary merit or production values or razzle-dazzle would outweigh this direct command of HaShem.

    Enforcement, even when it’s a good idea, is a last resort. A major raising of consciousness is clearly needed.

  4. sima ir kodesh says:

    As a Harry Potter fan, want to remind you that it takes a few months till HP reaches Steimentsky’s in the HEBREW language. All those rushing to make the purchases on Shabbat, are English readers.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I was all set up to write a long canard on how this looks from the Chiloni perspective and how Israel is becoming dangerously polarized. If you’re been reading the comments on this site for a while, you know the the kind (I’ve been doing this for a while).

    I decided it’s pointless. Israel might end up in a civil war (sorry Hillel, I find it hard to count on Mashiach arriving to bail us out at any particular time). Israel might end up with a massive exodus of chilonim who can afford to leave, especially from the high-tech field. Neither would be good from the Orthodox perspective, but that’s irrelevant.

    What I didn’t realize before is that being Orthodox means following Halacha, even when it is personally distasteful. An Orthodox Rabbi might not like telling an Aguna that barring future developments she’s going to have to live her life alone and childless, but if that’s what Halacha dictates that’s what Halacha dictates. Similarly, if Halacha requires that you have to coerce other Jews to follow it when you can, Orthodox Jews do not have a personal choice in that matter (beyond rejecting Halacha and leaving Orthodoxy).

    I think I’m starting to understand Tisha b’Av better. I never observed it before, but I probably will this year.

  6. Gil Landau says:

    Wonderful point made – People complain about being forced to keep shabbat, so in response suggest forcing a religious a law that would kill people for keeping shabbat if they are not Jewish.

    While its obvious that you are joking – its also obvious that you completely do not understand their complaint. You’re telling them that they should be happy we don’t enforce the religious laws (that they do not believe in) that would have others killed.

    You put religious coercion in quotes, implying you don’t believe that forcing someone to keep the commerce part shabbat is religious coercion – what then would religious coercion be?

  7. Mike S says:

    While few have the ability to uphold the words of the Torah by coercion, we all have the power to do so by living our lives in a way that makes the truth of the Torah apparent to all who interact with us. Let us all strive to act in a way that makes those who see us say “Happy is the one who taught him (or her) Torah”

  8. Nachum says:

    If there is a positive commandment to coerce others to keep Halacha, why draw the line at store closings on Shabbat? Shouldn’t there be a law against driving, public broadcasting, etc.? And, what’s the justification for NOT throwing stones or otherwise stopping people from driving on Shabbat? And why stop at Shabbat? ALL halacha should be enforced, on the pain of imprisonment!

    It’s very nice that the Torah itself enjoins one to coerce others to keep Halacha. But what in Israeli jurisprudence enjoins such a thing?

    Coersion is a very short-sighted way to spread the keeping of Halacha.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller: Wasn’t witchcraft/sorcery something Jews were commanded to blot out?

    Ori: Does that commandment apply to fiction? Is The Wizard of Oz forbidden because of the good witch and the wizard himself?

    BTW, wizardry in Harry Potter functions as a form of technology. It is very different from the ancient magical traditions of summoning various pagan deities.

  10. farrockgrandma says:

    The people who will be michalel Shabbos to buy a book, are for the most part, not keeping Shabbos in any case. There will be an additional number who are weak or on the fence and will fall to temptation.
    Maybe we should address this, and missionaries who prey on the weak, in the same way. We can and should protest and try to stop those who are taking advantage, just as long as we do our part in reaching out to bring our more distant brothers closer. Expending our efforts only to stop the commercial or missionary interests is just plain hypocritical.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    “…BTW, wizardry in Harry Potter functions as a form of technology. It is very different from the ancient magical traditions of summoning various pagan deities.
    Comment by Ori Pomerantz — July 19, 2007 @ 2:30 pm”

    For some people, technology is their pagan deity.

  12. One Christian's perspective says:

    Bob Miller: Wasn’t witchcraft/sorcery something Jews were commanded to blot out?

    Harry Potter is a fantasy that stresses good over evil with much humor and picturesque inventive language…..i.e. someone called “Snape” is surely not someone one wants to get close to and a muggle – the non-wizard on the street- could be any of us whose face(appearance) is exagerated to be something we are not but want others to think we are.

    While the occult is not utilized, your word of caution, however, is well taken. Many Christian parents do not permit their children to read these books let alone see the movies. OTOH, some Christian parents (those who I know) permit their children to read the books and see the movies……. but not without an adequate discussion of witchcraft and sorcery from a biblical perspective beforehand and often afterwards.

    While this book/movie appears forebidding, things like Ouija boards which are dangerously occultic are sold in toy stores as a fun game.

    A wise manager at work, years told me “when in doubt don’t”. I find it holds true in many situations.

  13. Isaac Balbin says:

    I always thought it was Moshiach’s job to force people AFTER he came. At least that’s what the RAMBAM says in HILCHOS Melochim. It’s almost certain that their is no chiyuv of Tochocho today, and now we want K’fiyah? Feh. Try some Ahavas Chinom, that will make the law stand up.

  14. lawrence kaplan says:

    What bothers me is the basic lack of self-respect on the part of the book store owners.

  15. Charles B. Hall says:

    A better question: What is it about our culture that many of us can’t wait 20 hours to acquire a 759 page novel? This is not unique to non-observant Jews; many Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews are relying on questionable heterim in order to eat meat during the nine days. We can’t go five consecutive days without meat?

  16. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Lawrence Kaplan, why do you think they lack self respect? If they’re chilonim, and don’t observe Shabbat in their personal lives, why would they want to close their business on Shabbat?

  17. Shlomo says:

    What I didn’t realize before is that being Orthodox means following Halacha, even when it is personally distasteful. An Orthodox Rabbi might not like telling an Aguna that barring future developments she’s going to have to live her life alone and childless, but if that’s what Halacha dictates that’s what Halacha dictates. Similarly, if Halacha requires that you have to coerce other Jews to follow it when you can, Orthodox Jews do not have a personal choice in that matter (beyond rejecting Halacha and leaving Orthodoxy).

    How is this news to you – have you ever read Breishit 22?

  18. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Shlomo, it was hard for me to digest how central this point really is. I’m an outsider, most of my view of Orthodoxy comes from Web sites like this one. The fact that Halacha requires choices that are personally distasteful isn’t something that’s often talked about, at least in front of strangers. The fact that the choices are personally difficult, yes – but that’s a different matter.

    Maybe I should have realized that from the Akeida, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, but it’s hard to extrapolate from the patriarchs. The previous Parasha Abraham haggles with G-d – how many modern Jews do that? A few chapters later Jacob fights an angel – how many times have you done that lately?

  19. G B says:

    In our family, the day that The Deathly Hallows was released was known as “Shabbos HaPottur”

    Pun intended!

  20. bag says:

    I am not clear that there is any obligation to coerce – there may be an obligation to prevent sin and possibly to institute legislation that prevents sin. But I would think the issue is pragmatic – if coercion produces resentment and makes people more anti-religious overall, I would think the larger goal trumps the immediate goal. They say that a fellow came to the Chazon Ish and said that his son, who was irreligious, wanted a car, and that he, the father, didn’t want to provide it unless his son would agree not to drive on shabbat. The Chazon Ish told the father that he should give the car with no conditions, because that way he would establish a better relationship and be in a better position to influence his son. We shouldn’t lose sight of the larger goal.

  1. March 14, 2011

    […] I wrote on this subject on July 19,2007 on the cross-currents blog, in a posting titled “Harry Potter and Shabbos” to which there were 20 […]

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