The media frenzy surrounding President Trump has included reports about his daughter and son-in-law’s observance of Jewish ritual, including resting on the Jewish Sabbath. On a few occasions, the media have noted puzzling exceptions to Ivanka and Jared’s observance, exceptions that raise questions about the necessity of refraining from work on the Jewish Sabbath. But employers should understand that their Jewish employees who devoutly observe the Sabbath can make exceptions in only the rarest cases, which have been voluminously delineated in a literature tracing back thousands of years.
From sunset on Friday night until dusk on Saturday night, traditional Jews observe what they count as the fourth of the Ten Commandments, by refraining from creative labor. This includes writing, driving, turning on lights, speaking on telephones, and otherwise using electronic devices. A long line of argument, following millennia of discussion, connects the biblical command to the smartphone. It need not detain us here. Normative Orthodox Jewish practice is to refrain from using any electronic devices from Friday night through Saturday night. Instead, we go to synagogue multiple times, eat joyous meals with family and friends, study religious texts, and otherwise rest on this biblical day set aside for religious devotion.
In the early years of the twentieth century, observant Jews frequently heard from their employers on Friday that if they did not show up to work on Saturday, they were fired. Consequently, many Jews had to look for a new job every week until they found an accommodating employer who respected religious conviction. Eventually, laws were passed to protect the freedom to observe the Sabbath. Today, observant Jews can work in most fields without fear of having to choose between earning a living and observing a biblical tradition.
However, there are—and have always been—exceptions. The book of Maccabees tells how the ancient Jews were hesitant to fight the Greeks on the Sabbath until they realized it was unavoidable. In order to save their lives, they waged war on the Sabbath. When lives are at risk, we may set aside the technical Sabbath laws, which in those circumstances would be considered a fulfillment, not a violation. The Orthodox Jewish ambulance service, Hatzoloh, operates on the Sabbath because saving lives is a part of the Sabbath.
This is not a carte blanche. These medical personnel receive detailed training concerning which circumstances merit Sabbath violation and which do not. The Israeli army has a military rabbinate trained to advise on these issues and authorized to instruct religious soldiers what is permitted and what is forbidden. Orthodox Jewish doctors regularly consult rabbis concerning what they may do on the Sabbath. One rabbi-doctor scholar has written an encyclopedia of Jewish medical ethics with lengthy discussions of Sabbath laws.
Sometimes, policy debates rise to the level that justifies minor Sabbath violations. Sometimes, when lives may be immediately saved, they justify major violations. These are complex issues that require an understanding of both the broad context and the specific details. Individuals must always ask a rabbi, to gain the benefit of their training and scholarship and avoid personal bias. We don't risk violating one of the Ten Commandments lightly.
Observant Jews involved in high-level American politics, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, have carefully balanced the needs of the American public with their personal religious needs. Senator Joseph Lieberman and Treasury Secretary (and former White House Chief of Staff) Jack Lew are two observant Jews who refrained from work on the Sabbath but sought rabbinic guidance concerning when exceptions were allowed and how to structure those exceptions to minimize negative religious impact. Jared and Ivanka Kushner are observant Jews who advise the president on potentially lifesaving policy decisions. Even though, like Lieberman and Lew, the Kushners do not claim religious perfection, they seek rabbinic guidance on how to observe the Sabbath while still advising the leader of the free world.
I am not writing here to endorse anyone's politics, nor to approve any specific actions. Democrats and Republicans agree that policy decisions can directly save lives, but that not every decision is so vital as to demand immediate attention. Careful consideration must be given to each circumstance, recognizing the weight of thousands of years of Jewish tradition.
Employers should understand that their observant Jewish employees need to spend the Sabbath at synagogue and at home, resting as God commanded them. The importance of the work done by lawyers, accountants, and other professionals should not be minimized, but neither can it be classified as lifesaving. This great country has come a long way from when Jews had to choose between their jobs and the Ten Commandments. Let us not let the Trump media frenzy take us back to that unpleasant time.
Rabbi Gil Student is the editor of TorahMusings.com.