The Shabbes Wife


Credit: Photo by William Mercer McLeod ({link url=""}{/link}).

Growing up as a totally secular Jew, I was always intrigued by the idea of the shabbes goy—a non-Jew who would perform certain tasks for Jews on the Jewish Sabbath, tasks they were forbidden to do themselves (such as turning on a light, which would count as “work” on the day of rest). It seemed pretty sneaky to me—a way to follow the letter of the holy law while violating it in spirit. By which I mean to say: I dug it. The only flaw, it seemed to me, was that you would then be dependent on the presence of a Gentile—Elvis Presley, say, or the Pope (just to pick two at random)—who was willing and able to perform these mundane tasks for you. What if Elvis had a Friday-night concert? Or if the Pope wanted to go bowling on Saturday afternoon? Then you’d be stuck.

Of course, since I myself observed none of the Jewish laws (unless, perhaps, by accident), this wasn’t a real issue for me. I could turn on (or, to use the language of my immigrant grandparents, “open”) the light whenever I wanted to. So I never spent that much time grappling with the whole shabbes goy concept. But now, in middle age, I’ve begun exploring certain aspects of Jewish practice: I go to temple (sometimes), I read the Torah (in portions, and in English), I even believe in God (not really, but I just wanted to hedge my bets here). This year, for the first time, I totally fasted for Yom Kippur—going so far as to forswear my beloved coffee (resulting in the holiest headache of my life). And I think it was during this fast that I looked over at my wife, who is not Jewish, and thought: hey, maybe she could be my shabbes goy! {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

It seemed perfect! After all, we live together, so she wouldn’t have to drive in from somewhere. And as a schoolteacher, she’s usually at home all weekend, grading papers and such, so there wouldn’t be many schedule conflicts. The more I thought about it, the more this idea made sense to me. But then I was visited by a shocking insight: My wife had already been my shabbes goy for years—only not just on the Sabbath! For instance, she’d long done most of the housework and the cooking, even though her job is infinitely more exhausting than mine. In fact, in all her interactions, she is profoundly ethical—often spending lots of time and energy on little thoughtful things (like sending out thank-you notes) that would never occur to me to do (busy as I am with important tasks like opening the refrigerator, closing the refrigerator, and napping).

This, in turn, was followed by a revelation: it was my Gentile wife who had inspired me to explore Judaism. Living with someone who is so profoundly loving and moral, who does work (at school and at home) that is so often selfless, I had become aware of an absence—or at least an incompleteness—at my own center: call it spiritual. And as it happens, my neighborhood shul is a place where people grapple with such issues all the time, seeking wisdom from tradition and from one another. By necessity, as we are all imperfect, we do this imperfectly. Sometimes, some of us may even cut corners. (Though, to reiterate, I totally stayed off coffee this Yom Kippur!) But we fight the good fight, and we do it together.

Looking around at my fellow congregants, I am often struck by how they know the prayers so much better than I do. Certainly, most if not all of them are far more observant than I am. And even though we’re in Berkeley, I’d daresay that many of them even believe in God. But that’s OK. Because I realize now that I am in training for something I have yet to become. I know it won’t be easy. I’m sure there will be ups and downs. But one day, if I study Judaism as deeply as I can, and get off my butt more around the house, perhaps I can achieve my new goal: to become my wife’s shabbes Jew—for one day a week, at least, or maybe even seven.


(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Comments are closed.