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Monday, 7 April 2014

Should we close the synagogue parking lot on Shabbos?

Beitzah 8

Today’s Life Yomi is dedicated in memory of Laurie Cooper z”l, by his cousin Jerry Cooper and his nephew, Sam Zivot.  May his neshomo have an aliyah and may he be a ‘gutter better,’ an effective advocate in the Heavenly court for the entire family and particularly for a complete and speedy recovery for Sheyndel Rachel bat Chana.

Saving a life overrides the laws of Shabbos.  So, for example, while it is ordinarily forbidden to drive on Shabbos, someone who is extremely ill may be taken by car to the hospital.

How about one who is spiritually ill?   Certainly we believe that spiritual maladies are even worse than physical maladies.  If they stay home or engage in other non-Shabbos activities, they will not get better.  Should we allow them to drive to the synagogue in order to ‘save their souls’?

Following shechita (ritual slaughter) of birds and wild animals, the Torah commands us to cover the blood with earth.   Since crushing earth is forbidden on a holy day, are we permitted to slaughter such animals on Yom Tov?

When we are faced with two conflicting commandments, one positive, one negative, the positive commandment overrides the negative prohibition.  For example, we are forbidden to remove skin that is inflicted with tzaraas (a certain skin disease).  Nevertheless, if the foreskin was afflicted, the commandment of bris milah overrides the prohibition of tzaraas and we perform the circumcision.

Similarly, we are forbidden to wear garments containing a mixture of wool and linen, called shatnez.  But at the same time we are obligated in the mitzvah of tzitzis, to place wool strings on the four corners of our garments.   What do you do?  No worries, the positive commandment of tzitzis overrides the prohibition of shatnez and we wear the linen garment with the wool strings.

The Gemara suggests that the same rule should apply to slaughtering a chicken on Yom Tov.  The commandment to cover the blood should override the prohibition of crushing the earth and it should be permissible.

No, says the Gemara, this case is not analogous to the cases of the bris and the tzitzis.  In those cases, the commandment and the prohibition occur simultaneously.  The action of cutting which effects the commandment, the bris milah, is the same action that effects the prohibition, the removal of the tzaraas.   Likewise, the act of wearing which effects the commandment of tzitzis is the same act that effects the prohibition of shatnez.  Therefore, in these cases, the commandment trumps the prohibition.

In contrast, the prohibition of crushing the earth precedes the mitzvah of covering the blood.  They are two separate actions.  As such, we cannot apply the principle that a positive commandment trumps a negative prohibition to slaughtering on Yom Tov.  Instead, the earth would have to be prepared before Yom Tov to use for the mitzvah.

When we drive an extremely ill person to the hospital, we do so to save his life immediately.  The commandment to save a life trumps the prohibition of driving on Shabbos.  In contrast, driving to synagogue might help solidify a person’s Jewish identity and commitment so that sometime in the future he will become more observant.  In other words, the prohibition of driving is now, but the positive outcome is not expected until years hence.  I have yet to meet someone who drove to a Shabbos service and said, “Wow, that’s it!  Henceforth, I am a changed man.” 

In fact, the reason we are allowed to drive an ill person on Shabbos is that the Torah says “You shall live by them [the laws].”  The Talmud explains the meaning of this verse: Make one Shabbos mundane in order to keep many more Shabboses.  If we save this man’s life by taking him in a car this Shabbos, he will have many more opportunities in his life to observe Shabbos in its entirety.  It is not a permanent amendment to the law; it is merely a temporary one-Shabbos fix. 

Does that mean that we must discourage people from coming to shul if they live too far away to walk? No, we always want to encourage people to come to shul, because it’s probably the most spiritual use of their Shabbos time.  But we stop short of legalizing the driving as a means to an end.  Instead, we simply don’t ask them how they got to shul.  In the words of my chavrusa, Rabbi Jonathan Gross, upon being asked how many people drive to his shul: “Everyone walks through the front door!” 

Au contraire, as Orthodox shuls, we must strive to be as welcoming as possible.  Closing a synagogue parking lot never convinced anybody to stop driving on Shabbos.  Their response was either to just park on the street, which really didn’t change anything; or, to switch to a non-Orthodox synagogue. 

The legalization of driving on Shabbos never led to people becoming Shabbos-observant.  But neither did closing shul parking lots.  Let’s strive to encourage as many Jews as possible to attend our shuls.  We won’t ask them how they got there.  But one day, they will tell us with pride that they’ve just bought a house right around the corner from the shul so that they never have to drive again on Shabbos!

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