Blog: April 2013

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Is observing Judaism "all or nothing"?

A question on Mi Yodeya asks: if I can't keep all of Jewish law, for example if I have to work on Saturdays, is there benefit to keeping only some of it? Or is it "all or nothing"?

My answer:

It's not either/or but "both, and".

Judaism has a system of rules, halacha, by which we are to live our lives. Halacha is not negotiable, so that might sound like "all or nothing". Instead, think of it as what you aspire to, even if it's not what you currently do. Halacha calls on you to do all that you can, but also recognizes that all humans are imperfect and does not hold one failure against us in other areas.

As someone else noted, there are conditions where halacha itself provides for prioritization, but this is built into the halachic system, not something that individuals get to decide. If you think your individual circumstances call for a leniency on any matter of halacha, you should consult your rabbi for guidance. Your rabbi is in a position to evaluate the demands of halacha, your financial situation, your family situation, where you currently are in your growth in torah, and so on, and advise you about your job.

When we face barriers to fulfilling the law we should be striving to remove them. In your case, your job currently requires you to work on Shabbat. Can you do anything about that? Can you trade shifts with somebody, even if it means your new shift will be less convenient? Can you find a new job that doesn't have this requirement? If you can make either of those changes, so that you can remain employed and also keep Shabbat, Jewish tradition calls on you to do so. Remove the barrier by changing jobs, rather than saying "there's a barrier and I can't get past it".

I'm not trying to give you personal advice (that's not what this site is for) but rather to illustrate an approach. Yes, Judaism has rules, and when you violate them you are sinning. Yes, Judaism has some affordances for sufficiently-severe circumstances (and for this you should consult your rabbi). And yes, Judaism calls on you to take action yourself where you can to improve the situation instead of waiting for things to get better on their own.

And, all that said, if what you're asking is "if I can't do all of it should I do any of it?", the answer is yes. Every mitzvah you do counts in your merit; it is better to violate Shabbat and still follow other mitzvot than to say "well, if I can't do Shabbat I'll just punt on everything". Doing a mitzvah can lead you to do another; that's a good thing. As it says in Pirke Avot (4:2): mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah -- one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, one transgression leads to another transgression.

(I realize that this answer is largely lacking in sources.)