One and a half hours before Shabbat last week, my house lost electrical power. We had experienced a brief outage the night before, as the big Jerusalem snowstorm set in, but this was serious: We were scheduled to have 12 out-of-town guests for the Friday night meal and all of the food was stone cold. Jewish law requires food that is to be eaten hot on Shabbat be placed on a warming platter before candle lighting. In certain cases there are leniencies, but not in ours. We needed 45 minutes of power to heat all the dishes before Shabbat set in. Otherwise we would have to cancel our dinner arrangements.
Complicating matters further, the Jerusalem citywide eruv was damaged by the storm and if left unrepaired, carrying on Shabbat would be prohibited. Carrying in a public domain is one of the 39 categories of prohibited activity on Shabbat, according to Jewish law. An eruv encloses an otherwise public space and permits carrying in what is then classified as a private area.
Adding to the equation was that Friday was a Fast Day, the 10th of Tevet, commemorating, among other events, the beginning of the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the First Temple seven months later. Dramatically, we were now in the midst of a siege by snow.
So we were fasting, figuring out what needed to be where before Shabbat (including synagogue and house keys), and had no electricity. And then the snowfall really picked up.
It was one hour and 20 minutes before candle lighting and the pavement leading up to our house was covered in snow. Some halakhic authorities forbid handling snow on Shabbat, which prohibits shoveling and effectively confines a person to his house. It also keeps others from entering. How were my guests supposed to make their way from the road to my front door?
I raced outside with my Israeli version of a shovel to pave my guests a narrow trail. As I did, I considered the ramifications of walking on snow on Shabbat, for doing so inevitably makes an image and causes snow to melt – both of which are prohibited activities. How would my guests even walk from their hotel to my house if the implications of doing so were forbidden? I had previously reviewed Rabbi Ari Enkin’s article on Hirhurim, which summarizes many of the halakhic opinions on snow and Shabbat, and was comfortable with the position that so long as one does not intentionally melt snow or ice to use it as water, then it is OK.
By now it was one hour until sunset. I had finished shoveling the snow off the pavement and turned to go back inside, when I noticed children across the street putting the final touches on a snowman they’d spent all day building. Halakhic authorities forbid building a snowman on Shabbat, so they weren’t going to continue this fun over the day of rest. What about snowballs, I wondered? A number of halakhic authorities forbid making them, concerned that it would be a violation of the squeezing or building prohibitions. On the other hand, others permit snowballs without any reservation. There is a halakhic principal of not forbidding something that the public can’t abide by – and who could resist the temptation of freshly fallen, packable snow? That’s what I thought to myself as I rolled up my last ball of snow for the day and tossed it at the gate.
As I rushed inside to see where my wife was at, preparing extra salads in case the hot food couldn’t be heated, I felt as though the snow, the eruv, the fasting, all the stuff I was dealing with, were all encroaching on that internal space I work Erev Shabbat to empty so as to allow Shabbat alone to occupy my being.
Fifty minutes before Shabbat, our electricity was suddenly restored. My wife, Debbie, quickly popped the trays into the oven and launched into all the other food preparations. I called our guests to confirm that we were on, started setting the table and took care of my other Shabbat logistical responsibilities. The last thing I did before leaving for synagogue was to unplug our Internet, as I do every week. That simple act of disconnecting from the weekday world is perhaps my most important Shabbat preparation.
I left for synagogue with nothing in my pockets, just me and what I was wearing – in case the eruv hadn’t been restored. As I made my way though the falling snow, I felt liberated, unencumbered, understanding for the first time why desisting from carrying in public contributed to a more meaningful Shabbat experience.
Returning home after synagogue, after making Kiddush and breaking our fast, we waited 45 minutes after our guests were due to arrive. We discovered later that they had decided, rightfully so, that to venture out in a heavy snow was simply dangerous – and halakha mandates preservation and safeguarding of life (even if it would require violation of the Shabbat). So they just ate their Shabbat meal at the hotel.
Debbie and I sat down at our table for 14, just the two of us, and appreciated the calm and the absolute beauty of the snow falling outside. It was then that I paused to realize the lesson in this storm. The snow was not impeding us, but rather allowing us to deepen our Shabbat experience by reminding us - through its purity, its simplicity, and the way it closes us off from the world outside - of the need for submission and acceptance.
Our Shabbat meal in the snowstorm turned out to be very nice. In fact, it was perfect.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.