If you go through most Jewish communities on a Saturday, you’ll probably notice Jewish families walking to and from synagogue and each other’s homes – usually dressed to the nines and never carrying anything. The reason for this is because it is Shabbat: the Jewish Sabbath. During Shabbat, there are things Jews should and should not do. Work and commerce are the big no-nos, but included with that is driving or riding in a car.
What does driving a car have to do with work?
There is a command in the Torah not kindle a flame during Shabbat as well: “You shall kindle no fire in all of your dwelling places/habitations on the Sabbath.” – Exodus 35:3. When the ignition is engaged, this causes a spark which ignites fuel.
While this is the primary reason I do not drive a car on Shabbat, there is a much more selfish reason why I don’t: I simply don’twantto.
I grew up in a traditional Lutheran household in Oklahoma. We attended church every Sunday and Wednesday. I was extremely active in the youth group as well as the boy scout troop that met there every Monday night. Though I have since converted to Judaism by way of the Modern Orthodox movement, I still think back on those times fondly. When I think back specifically about what I specifically liked, most of those times are actually some of the most Jewish aspects of that Lutheran life: the proximity of the spiritual community.
The church we attended was immediately across the street from our neighborhood. Even though we attended the church for over a decade and all of us were always in attendance, I can’t count on one hand the number of times we all went together and left together. Usually a few of us would go early for some reason, some would come late, some would stay late to help with something, and some of us would go home. The church was the hub we were spokes on a wheel. All the while, most of this was while I couldn’t drive. Most of the time, if my parents didn’t have their own Sunday school classes to attend, I would walk there by myself. If they had a committee meeting to attend and couldn’t give me a ride home, my brother and I would walk home. Many of the families that attended the church lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and their kids would do the same.
This brings me back to modern predicament: driving on the Jewish Sabbath. When some non-Jewish friends and co-workers hear that the Torah doesn’t allow for the kind of actions that would be required to drive on Shabbat, the comments are usually in the vein of, “Oh, you can’t drive on Shabbat? What a drag.” What a drag? No way! I love it. Why? Because I don’t think about it in terms of “can’t do” but rather I use the main purpose of Shabbat – a time to rest – and look through that lens to everything expected of me on Shabbat. I can’t drive? No, I don’thave todrive. I can’t work? No, I don’thave towork. I’m free from it all.
Growing up so close to my spiritual community spoiled me when it comes to modern Jewish life. I looked forward to the walk to church. As a kid, I didn’t have any ID, rarely had any cash on me, and certainly no cellphone. These days, when I walk somewhere on Shabbat, the same is true. No wallet. No phone. No worries. I feel like a carefree kid again even if just in 24-hour increments every week.
Another reason I love not driving on Shabbat is that it makes my spiritual community that much closer. After we moved from my childhood home to a lake town about 45 minutes away, we used to continue to make the drive back to our old church just because couldn’t bring ourselves to detach. Even with the families we loved still there, it proved to be way more stressful than it was worth. I remember my father getting stressed out by the traffic and it ruining his whole Sabbath vibe. When the church was around the corner, there was no such thing as traffic. When we were done with services and hanging out with friends, we’d all want to kick off our Sunday bests and relax. After a 45 minute drive, we were on edge and the free feeling of the entire day was shot.
There is another command in the Torah in regards to Shabbat:
“…Everyone is to stay where they are on the Sabbath day. No one is to go out from his place.” – Exodus 16:29
While this can sound like the no one is supposed to leave their house, the word for house is not used – rather the word translates closer to “positions” or “areas.” The same word “ממקמו” is used in Joshua and Judges in terms of geography. While this was usually in reference to walled cities or areas with some form of a boundary, many understand these days to mean a neighborhood, district, or a section of city with a man-made barrier. While I don’t think the ancient Israelites knew that not being able to kindle a flame would mean that their fire-driven animal-free wagons (automobiles) would not be able to operate on Shabbat, they certainly understood not traveling beyond their own sections of town on the Sabbath.
While I am a traditional Jew in my observance and I wouldn’t even start my car on the Sabbath, it is a pleasure to not even think about driving on Shabbat. I look forward to the time every week when I can leave my car keys in the drawer and not have to worry about getting stuck in traffic or potentially have to mess with any auto maintenance issues. For that day every week, I’m happy to be a care-free 12 year old.