For many weeks, thousands of people have massed in public squares across the Arab world, protesting for democracy. Many of the largest gatherings have occurred on Friday, Islam’s day of public prayer, sometimes stretching past sunset and continuing the following day.
The protests have drawn young and old, religious and secular, men and women. But if an observant Jew wanted to attend a protest on Friday night or Saturday, what would halakha and Jewish values have to say?
Given that walking is permitted on Shabbat, those who live close to the protests would have no reason not to leave the house and walk a few blocks to Tahrir Square in Cairo or Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain. But on the way there, the observant Jewish protester may perhaps be tempted to carry food or clothing — and carrying from one area to another is forbidden on Shabbat. Furthermore, protesters who live more than 2000 cubits (a little over half a mile) outside the city would be overstepping what is called t’hum Shabbat, or the maximum distance one is allowed to travel between cities on the Sabbath, in order to attend the protests — another violation of halakha.
But, as is often the case in Jewish law, that’s not the end of the story: shomer Shabbat democratic activists in the Middle East and North Africa may still have a chance to go to those Friday night and Saturday protests, even if it means violating Shabbat.
According to article 329 of Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulkhan Arukh, the classic 16th-century code of Jewish law, one may always break the prohibitions of Shabbat to save a life, a commonly cited halachic principle called pikuah nefesh. This principle almost always refers to urgent cases of danger or illness, such as driving a sick person to the emergency room or digging through debris to save someone from an avalanche. It could also come into play, however, in the case of protesting a violent government that kills civilians arbitrarily — though no halachic sources raise that possibility in particular.
Another halachic prinicple that relates to the protests is the idea of tzorchei rabbim, or communal needs. The sages placed great importance on doing necessary work for the community, and allowed for certain public projects to happen on hol ha’moed, or the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover. Rabbinic sources never cite tzorchei rabbim as a reason to break the laws of Shabbat. The principle could, however, enter the conversation if an observant Jew — who would otherwise not have to break the laws of Shabbat to attend the protests — were deciding whether to contribute to the unrest on the Day of Rest.
Rabbi Steven Exler, associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which is modern Orthodox, said that though “there’s an orientation toward quiet and less shouting” on Shabbat, attending the protests may be “important in creating greater freedom and an expression of human independence or self-actualization.”
Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. agreed that Jewish values include an imperative to help those in distress. He cited the story of the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt — a particularly poignant comparison given recent events in Cairo.
“As a Jew, when people are struggling for liberty, their struggles are worthy of our support,” Rosen said. “The Exodus story teaches us that we stand with all of those who are struggling against oppression.”
Rosen added that the Israelites’ example is important not just because they left one society but also because they formed a new, more righteous one.
“It’s not only about freeing yourself. It’s about creating a new kind of society,” he said. “Liberty was about leaving Egypt and also about what they created. Liberty of these Middle Eastern countries and the people who live there won’t be complete until society is based on rule of law and justice.”