The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 

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What can we do to lessen our negative impact on the earth? I may not be ready to give up my car, but could I do it one day a week? If Shabbos is anything, it's intense training to living a different way—if we let it teach us.

Halakhically, we might need to do some retooling to make Shabbat what it seems like it's supposed to be: a weekly celebration of the Creation, zekher l'ma'aseh v'reishit. Years ago when I lived in Boston we experimented with "no electricity" Shabbatot in my communal household. That meant light just until the candles went out. Again, the difference between leaving a light on a timer and leaving a few candles burning is not going to save the polar bears. But it might give someone the kind of practice of living differently that teaches that we can create a new society.

It's so easy to turn Shabbat into "rest" for us without letting it be a rest for the earth. Shabbos timers, paper plates, even thermostats can sometimes keep us from seeing, or more importantly, tasting, the depth of Shabbat. (I live in Massachusetts now so I'm not about to suggest we turn of the heat in the winter btw.) Shabbat is about ceasing, full stop, withdrawing from the use of "power over" in favor of "being with". (R. Nehemia Polen btw gave a beautiful drash on "rest" as ceasing, using the sense of a musical rest, at the 4th Carlebach conference.)

Something I can attest to as a useful halakhic shift is that I have (for years now) been turning lights off during Shabbat when I'm finished with them. After that, I won't turn them back on again.

The legal reasoning is pretty simple: a d'oraita or Torah prohibition takes precedence over a d'rabbanan or rabbinic rule. In this case, the Torah prohibition of bal tashchit militates against wasting energy, which takes priority over the rabbinic "fence" that would apply to turning off lights.*

Even if you don't keep Shabbat in that kind of detail, you can still use the day as a way to ratchet down your "I-It" relationship with the world around you, the more-than-human world. Just pick one thing you won't do on Shabbat, every Shabbat. Use the change to reflect on what you else you can change, or to appreciate what is beautiful, or to remember to pray for the welfare of the world whenever you think about it, or all of the above.

Whether you use the halakhic framework or not, there are few opportunities to really shift how you use the world and its resources that are as well-supported as Shabbat. Turn on Shabbat; make the world cooler!

* To the readers who are thinking halakhically: While turning on an electric light has lots of conjectured reasons why it might be prohibited—bishul, makeh b'patish, boneh, the problem of creating sparks, the question of light itself, etc.—none of them actually apply to turning something off. The only rabbinic prohibition for Shabbat that would apply to turning off lights is sh'vut, the requirement to avoid things that are not restful. This should really only require us to turn off a light with what's called a shinui, meaning we do it in a different way than we would during a normal weekday when we could turn the light back on. One way to accomplish this is to turn something off by unplugging it—this would apply to any electric appliance.
      Such leniencies would not apply to turning anything on, and this is true not only because the matter of bal tashchit is not weighing against being stricter. Rather, asking people to make distinctions between what kind of electric appliance could be turned on because it does not do any m'lakhah or work (i.e. a stereo), vs. an appliance that does do work (i.e. an electric teapot) places us in the arena where normal halakhah would say lo plug, that is, we forbid them all and don't distinguish because it is asking too much to expect people to be experts about what to use and what not to use. This point was brought home to me one time when a Conservative but otherwise Shabbat-observant friend I was visiting plugged in his teapot after Shabbat lunch to make us tea.


your website made me feel good!

Posted by: yehoshua at April 18, 2008 8:43 AM

Something I can attest to as a useful halakhic shift is that I have (for years now) been turning lights off during Shabbat when I'm finished with them. After that, I won't turn them back on again.
mumar b'chol hatorah

Posted by: j at October 24, 2008 5:47 PM


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