I've got pushy Sabbath observers in my doorman-less lobby

Because observant Orthodox Jews may not use intercoms on the Sabbath, things get a little sticky in my building.

Published December 8, 2008 11:10AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Well, I gotta go in Monday morning for a second round with the surgeon, so there won't be a column for a couple of days, probably. Don't worry, it's not serious, but I'll be on drugs and I've tried to write on drugs and it's not a viable career path. Until then, if you want to do something cool, you can always order the new holiday book! See you in a couple of days. --ct

Dear Cary,

I live in a doorman-less building. A Sabbath observer [an observant Orthodox Jew] recently moved in and invites friends to visit on the Sabbath; however, because of Sabbath rules regarding the use of machines, they won't use the phone or the building security system. They wait in the vestibule until someone lets them in.

I never admit strangers, but they are persistent. One stuck his foot into the doorjamb as I tried to enter, and pushed past me, as I was trying to explain to him that he would have to get permission from a resident to let him in.

Recently, there was an armed robbery nearby and I'm concerned about our security. My senile landlord is religious and I'm afraid that if I complain, my rent will go sky-high at the next lease renewal. As a feminist, an atheist and a secular Jew, my irritation about the security issue is increased by my disgust with their religious practices. I'm considering sending an anonymous note to this tenant, suggesting they find a more secure way of admitting Sabbath guests, but my fury is interfering with drafting a civil or constructive note.


Dear Insecure,

While generally in New York City one may easily avoid activities such as planting, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves and threshing, it is often imperative that one take steps to "exercise control and dominion over one's environment." Yet exercising control and dominion over one's environment is also something observant Jews are not supposed to do on the Sabbath. So in my decidedly non-rabbinical opinion, I'd say this fellow with his foot in the door is out of line. He may be observant, but he's overlooking some things. Plus he's missing the whole spirit of the thing, which is to go crazy working six days a week and then on the seventh day you totally chill and mellow out. Meaning you don't push your way into anybody's lobby. You chill. You stand out in the cold and wait for God to speak to you. Maybe God will speak to him through that little intercom. Which raises a question for the rabbis: May God violate the Sabbath?

So that fellow should maybe take like six Sabbaths in a row and mellow out. As to the ongoing problem, I see two arguments you could make. One is the security argument. Say some burglar dresses up as an observant Jew and sticks his foot in your door. How to protect against that? How are you to know that these visitors are authentic friends and observant Jews? Does the new tenant expect you to let in just any person who claims to be observing the Sabbath?

The security argument seems to be the strongest argument, but there might also be an argument that in not making proper arrangements to meet them downstairs your neighbor is forcing them to take measures that might violate the Sabbath. In trying to be observant, they are perhaps being nonobservant. Maybe you could consult with a rabbi on this. If you were going to argue the religious angle, you'd want to come with that kind of firepower. An ordinary philosopher won't be good enough. You'll need a specialist.

They can't call up on the intercom because it's electrical. Understood. But they could use a key, right? How about he gives them keys? Would that be kosher?

If he can't or won't provide them with keys, then they should all synchronize their watches and arrive at such a time as he can be down in the lobby to let them in. That's not so onerous, is it? One has to make sacrifices for one's religion, right? Besides, waiting is a good, restful activity.

I don't know this tenant, or your landlord, and maybe they are a touchy sort, but for heaven's sake this does not seem to be so unreasonable a request. So if you can cool down long enough to write a letter zeroing in on the constructive elements here, trying to see it from his perspective, maybe you can make some progress.

Now, as to the whole meta-situation, that is, the whole idea of the 39 categories of prohibited activities, it's quite amazing and intricate:

The thirty-nine melakhot are not so much activities as categories of activity. For example, while 'winnowing' [one of the 39 prohibited categories of activity] usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, it refers in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem.)

So I was happy to attend, last night, the First Synod of the Atheon, put on by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, about whom Bruce Sterling in Wired has a thing or two to say. We gathered in Berkeley to collectively contemplate this question: If we need to worship, and apparently many of us do, could we maybe, uh, worship science?

If people worshipped science, it'd be no problem to use the elevator and the intercom, right? That's not saying anything against religious people. Nobody wants to tell anybody they have to use the elevator if they really prefer to use the stairs, or that they have to eat fish with bones in it if they prefer gefilte fish, or that they absolutely have to filter their water on Saturday. I mean, this is the land of the free. You just hate to see people standing out in the cold.

And security, that's a different story. Men sticking their feet in the door, that's no good. I'd think that's an issue about which all can agree. You shouldn't have to be letting strangers into your building. Their host should make arrangements for them. They're his guests, not yours.

So good luck with this, you ... you ... feminist, atheist, secular Jew, you! (Cue old man shaking fist at woman with streaks of purple hair.)

Since You Asked, the Best of Cary Tennis

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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