Rabbi I Have a Problem

Should I have objected to the visitor whose son brought a colouring book to shul on Shabbat?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: A visitor recently came to shul on Shabbat for a barmitzvah with his young son. When he sat down, he pulled out a book and some crayons and the boy quietly started colouring. I didn’t object because I didn’t want to embarrass them. But should I have said something to the wardens?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Colouring on the Sabbath is one of the 39 principal forms of labour, which makes it a particularly grave violation of halachah.

Your instinct not to embarrass them is to be commended. Although on reflection, you probably should have said something or at least mentioned it to one of the wardens. There is a balance to be achieved between not making visitors uncomfortable in shul and maintaining sacred space. In my experience, so long as the message is gentle and appropriately conveyed, it is highly unlikely to cause offence or discomfort.

I am going to assume, for the purpose of exploring the wider ramifications of your question, that this occurred in an Orthodox synagogue. If this is so, what you describe is an almost uniquely British experience. In the States and Canada where I grew up, it was most uncommon for non-observant Jews to participate in an Orthodox service. Everyone who belonged to the synagogue I grew up in was fully observant and committed to Orthodox practice. The notion of a worshipper in such a community giving his son a colouring book to keep him occupied during Sabbath prayer is wildly improbable.

Yet the fact that variations on the theme you describe occur with some frequency in many Orthodox synagogues here, particularly United Synagogues, speaks to the strength of such synagogues and their capacity to welcome all Jews regardless of observance.

Many in such synagogues appreciate the value of such openness even though it brings awkward moments like the one you describe. However there are, as always, individuals within these congregations who resent the incursion of non-observant visitors who, they feel, undermine the atmosphere of an Orthodox service. It is the role of the leadership, both religious and lay, to create an environment where the sanctity of the service is maintained, while at the same time communicating a palpable welcoming ethos. This is admittedly easier said than done.

However, I have always found humour to be a most useful and reliable tool. Humour is not just a tactic to defuse a tense situation but rather a healthy framework in which to situate one’s otherwise demanding religious life. Judaism certainly has its serious side but it is also about joy, laughter and irony.

Being religious is not a licence to behave as God’s policeman. Many a Chasidic tale depicts God as laughing. It wouldn’t hurt us to do likewise once in a while.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Full marks to you for resisting your initial urge to report them to the wardens. You knew there were rules, but put people first. After all, what are the rules there for other than to help us live a vibrant Jewish life as pleasantly as possible?

You also appreciated that not embarrassing individuals is as much a religious value as other considerations. It seems that nobody else did so either, so your community may be high up in the ranks of shuls that are perceived by visitors to be welcoming rather than offputting.

The same yardstick might apply to shouting out aloud if the person reading from the Torah makes a mistake. Yes, they mispronounced a word, but the correct version is written down and will not be lost, so why embarrass the person who had taken the trouble to learn the portion as best they could?

Of course, the assumption is that yours is an Orthodox synagogue, where writing on Shabbat is forbidden. In Progressive synagogues, there has been a complete re-evaluation of what is prohibited in the light of the vast changes since biblical times and modernity.

Thus, whereas travelling in earlier centuries on foot or by donkey was laborious, or even dangerous, using the car today is effortless and facilitates attending synagogue. So there is no ban on driving, no subterfuge and we use the shul car park.

The key question regarding any activity is: does it constitute work and impede rest? Sometimes, it depends not on the activity, but its purpose; thus writing out your tax returns is definitely not Shabbesdik, whereas writing a poem is entirely in the spirit of Shabbat.

There is also the issue of how we encourage children to attend services that are geared towards adults. That father adopted the right approach, taking his son, getting him to soak up the atmosphere, hear the tunes and feel at home. At my synagogue, we have a play area at the back of the prayer hall where they can play with toys (and colour in books), yet still feel they are part of the proceedings.

Ultimately, this incident — like so many others — is about religious principles taking precedence over religious minutiae. I do not think God cares whether a little boy uses crayons on Shabbat, but I do think God cares whether he and his father have a positive experience in synagogue.

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