Toronto is home to a significant Jewish population—over 160,000 according to the census of 2001. A significant part of the population is Orthodox Jews who attempt to live in close conformity to the laws and precepts of the Torah as it is explained in the Talmud. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the heart of the community has been along Bathurst street and if you were to drive through that area today you would see Jewish schools and synagogues, kosher supermarkets and many distinctly Jewish businesses. The yarmulke is as common there as the baseball cap is in the suburbs and as you visit offices in the area you will frequently spot a mezuzah affixed to the door frame. I enjoy the area, especially its bakeries, and find myself there often.
Murray is a friend and a fellow elder at Grace Fellowship Church. For the past twenty-nine years, he has been a paramedic and over the course of his career has often found himself working right in the center of Toronto’s Jewish community. His job has taken him into many homes, businesses and synagogues and along the way he has developed relationships and friendships. Over the years he has shared with me several interesting little glimpses of his work in that community—a community that attempts to adhere to every part of the Old Testament law. It is fascinating to hear how these attempts manifest themselves in the twenty-first century.
Jewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, but the question that has always plagued law-keepers is this: what actually constitutes work? Many modern interpretations of the law state that using an electrical button on the Sabbath constitutes work. Pressing a button closes an electrical switch and the closing of the switch is interpreted as “building” a circuit. Any kind of building on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden by the law. For that reason, many of the apartment buildings in this area use a feature in their elevators known as “Shabbat [Sabbath] service.” Sabbath service removes the need to press buttons. When the service is engaged, the elevator will either stop at every floor on both the way up and the way down, or it will rise to the top and then stop at every floor on the way down. In either case, the sanctity of the Sabbath is maintained. (Wikipedia’s article on Shabbat service is fascinating in its explanation of the variations of interpretation).
As is the case in many large cities, Toronto’s Jews have access to Hatzoloh, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to respond rapidly to emergency medical situations in Toronto’s Jewish community. Though they cannot transport patients to hospital, they are able to respond to calls and to assist paramedics in providing emergency services and language translation. Though they are on-call and available 24 hours a day, there is one small change in their operations on the Sabbath when driving a vehicle is forbidden. Their job is to extend mercy and prolong life and, according to Talmudic interpretation, responding to calls does not violate the Sabbath. However, once a call is complete, they are no longer on a mission of mercy and would be in violation of the Sabbath if they were to drive. What they do instead is employ a service run by non-Jews who will drive both their vehicles and the emergency personnel back to their homes.
The glimpse of the community that fascinates me most is the one which begins with Murray responding to a call on a hot, summer Saturday afternoon. After he completed the call and was walking back to his ambulance, he saw a man outside a neighboring home waving him over. This man led Murray into a very hot home and explained that his mentally disabled son had inadvertently turned off the air conditioning and they could not turn it back on without violating the Sabbath laws. He pointed to the thermostat and asked Murray, “Could you please turn it back on?” Murray flipped the little plastic switch and the air conditioner immediately came back to life. The man and his family were exuberant in their gratitude.
As Murray spoke to this man, and as he speaks to other members of the community, he sometimes asks whether he should become Jewish. Wouldn’t this be the path for him to live in obedience to God and to experience divine blessing? The answer is, “No! Don’t become Jewish! If you become Jewish you will have to obey the law—the whole law.” And the law is a heavy burden.