Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg (1859-1935) was a prominent Canadian Orthodox rabbi at the beginning of the 20th century who utilized considerable creativity in his sermons. One of his finest, from 1924, addressed Montreal Jewry.
In A Brivele fun di Zisse Mame Shabbes Malkese zu Ihre Zin un Tekhter fun Idishn Folk (A Letter from the Sweet Mother Sabbath Queen to Her Sons and Daughters of the Jewish People), Rabbi Rosenberg chose to speak through an interlocutor, the Sabbath Queen. Her theme was the lack of Sabbath observance within the Jewish community.
Rosenberg’s model was undoubtedly the 12th-century Iggeret Hashabbat (“Sabbath Letter”) of Abraham ibn Ezra, which begins with an angel delivering a letter from “the Sabbath” decrying lapses in Sabbath observance. Rabbi Rosenberg’s “Sabbath Queen” tells her children that she’s heard their questions on the Jews’ suffering. She answers that because many Jews have desecrated the Sabbath, they have abandoned the peace and protection offered by her.
The rabbi presented many arguments for Sabbath observance. From them we can discern the state of Sabbath observance in the Montreal Jewish community of the 1920s. The Sabbath Queen doesn’t address the entire Jewish community. She can only address those willing to listen. To them, the Sabbath Queen disparaged the prevalent notion that Sabbath observance was incompatible with modern civilization. On the contrary, she exhorted, Maimonides and other Sabbath observers who were great scientists, astronomers, doctors, and philosophers refuted the notion that Torah and civilization are incompatible.
The Sabbath Queen was also greatly annoyed that many Jews who showed her no respect nonetheless greatly honoured the memory of their deceased parents by reciting Kaddish and Yizkor. Such people, in her opinion, didn’t understand what they were doing. They were aware their loved ones have souls that live on after death. How, then, would it appear to those souls when their children publicly desecrated the Sabbath and yet asked God to give their parents a “proper rest under the wings of the Shechinah?”
Many Jews excused their non-observance by blaming economic conditions which made it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain employment that allowed for Sabbath observance. The Sabbath Queen acknowledged this argument and answered that the solution was the five-day week advocated by the labour movement. Owners of stores and factories employing Jews on the Sabbath were warned of divine punishment awaiting them.
At the end of the “letter,” speaking in his own voice, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed to two problematic areas of Montreal Sabbath observance: Jewish bakeries that baked bread on Shabbat, a practice that he was attempting to halt, and using baby carriages on Shabbat.
Regarding the latter, Rabbi Rosenberg addressed “not the women who go on the Sabbath to buy bargains in the markets… but rather… women who are entitled to the name ‘Jewish Daughters.’” These women may have refrained from purchasing on Shabbat, and thus observed the Sabbath prohibition of commercial transactions. On the other hand, they did push their baby carriages in the streets on the Sabbath, which, in the absence of an eruv, violated Sabbath law.
His answer was to modify the carriages so that they would be at least 42 inches high, thereby rendering them usable on Shabbat. Rabbi Rosenberg didn’t specify his halachic reasoning for this, though for the women he addressed, it might have sufficed that he said it was all right. In a later responsum, however, he made an admittedly weak halachic case that this would violate only a rabbinic ordinance and not biblical law.
Ordinarily, no Orthodox rabbi would be likely to permit even this. What, then, were the special circumstances according to which Rabbi Rosenberg’s halachic permission was granted? He was concerned with the parents: “One should not say… that the father and mother should be imprisoned in the house all the Sabbath day,” he explained. “This is painful for them. Without doubt their going to stroll with the child is part of their enjoyment of the Sabbath.”
Ira Robinson is professor of religion at Concordia University.