Cafeteria Judaism

This is a guest post by Mark Webster. Again. His credentials this time include being a big Jew.

There has been a lot of talk about Cafeteria Christians of late, but there has not been much talk about my people, the kings and queens of double-think: Jews.

As a background, I grew up in a mildly religious home…which was, for the most part, fueled by my own desire to be more religious. I went to Jewish overnight camp for four years and day camp for six years before. I learned how to not just read my torah portion for my bar mitzvah, but actually learned how to read torah, chant the services, and a multitude of other things that now feel highly irrelevant to life as it stands.

For Jews, it is not merely a desire to follow only the laws that make sense to us, but how to interpret the laws such that we can still live our lives with the least amount of “change.” This post will delineate a few of the more major loopholes that Jews have found over the years.

1. Shaving:

In the bible, it specifically says, “27 Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” Obviously, in modern day society, not only would this interfere with eating, but make you look RIDICULOUS!!! (Like this!)

Perhaps it was obvious to modern day Jews that this was not the face that people wanted to have associated with their religion…so they made a loophole. “G-d says this is the preferred way, but this is totally a kosher way to cut your hair and not look like a disgusting troll!”

2. Food

There is an old joke that goes something like this:

A young, talented rabbinical student would leave immediately after school every single day. Not even a word, just leave as quickly as possible. The rabbi, after a few weeks of being puzzled by his best pupil’s behavior, decided to follow him. The rabbi kept as quiet as possible as he followed the young man to a McDonalds, of all places! He watched in dismay as his student entered the premises and ordered a bacon double cheeseburger! Just as the student was hungrily putting the unkosher meal to his lips, the rabbi yelled,

“For the love of god, stop!”

The pupil looked most confused, “What’s the problem, Reb Harris?”

“Are you shitting me?! Look at what you’re eating! You couldn’t possibly get any more unkosher if you tried!”

The young man thought for a second, smiled and said, “Oh, but it’s completely okay! You taught us!”

“What?!” The rabbi was furious, “I have never said anything of the sort!”

The student rebutted, “Ah, but, it was observed by a rabbi!”


I’m bothered most, I think, by this hypocrisy. I know so many Jews who, when I enter their house, they scrupulously have two sets of…well…everything. Dishes, pots, sinks, and even refrigerators—and then go out to dinner and have a cheeseburger.

What is their excuse? They aren’t at home. I think that so many people feel that the home is where sanctity is important, so they don’t feel it’s as necessary to follow this outside of their house, or perhaps, they relish the chance to eat the unkosher food outside of the home.

3. Sabbath taboos

Now we get into some of the more bizarre loopholes that I have encountered, funny, all of them surround the most holy day of the week…the shabbos (sabbath):

1. Lifting things (eruv)

In the bible, it specifically talks about not being able to carry things around on the sabbath…which would mean everything from carrying keys in your pocket to a tissue would be, well, outlawed! Which is, at least, inconvenient, and, at most, ludicrous!

But we are a crafty people, and have come up with a way around this. If you take a
piece of string, and wrap it around your neighborhood, you are free to break this law because…well, I don’t have any clue. Honestly, this one has baffled me since day one. Why does a piece of string…or a wall, for that matter (which is what the string is used to represent), prevent god from getting pissed at you?

2. Turning on and off lights (timers)

Many Jew folk I know also have their lights on timers during shabbat because there is also a prohibition for CREATING THINGS…which includes creating…and destroying light. So, as a measure for you being able to function at night without having to spend the night with the lights on, we have decided to employ the use of timers on our lights. This allows us to have the lights turn on and off at reasonable hours BY THEMSELVES so we don’t have to, which means we aren’t breaking the laws of shabbos because we didn’t do it…except…who set the timer in the first place? Why doesn’t that count?

My question is…why make the loophole in the first place? Why not just redact the laws that we find so…uh…stupid? You KNOW you aren’t going to follow the rules because they’re asinine…otherwise you wouldn’t have made the loophole to begin with!

This is post 36 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.


  1. says

    I too hate hypocrisy. But does not every law have a situation where in it is inconvenient? On another note I want to see a study of how many laws come into play in peoples daily lives.

  2. says

    Right, but by going out of your way to create a loophole to the law completely undermines the law.If you are just going to pretend like the law doesn’t exist every time you would be forced to follow it…what is the point of the law in the first place?

  3. says

    It says the specific kinds of work (The 39 Melakhot) prohibited, thus defining loopholes, were all somehow part of building the Tabernacle.The picking things up and carrying exception works if you don’t cross a “domain” boundary. (i.e. indoors/outdoors, wilderness/civilized outdoors) A string is considered just enough to be considered a beam of a building! ha!You probably didn’t want silly rules “mansplained” did you. :/

  4. says

    Okay, this happens to be my field of expertise! Before I became an atheist, I was an hassidic, orthodox Jew and I received Semicha (Rabbinic ordination).Not that it makes the least bit of difference to me anymore, but to keep things interesting, I’ll share the reasons how some orthodox explain these things.Note: I’ll be giving the explanations from an Orthodox point of view, the conservative and reform Jews have an entirely different view on the Torah and Halakha.Shaving: In Hebrew the verse is פאת זקנם לא יגלחו, you cannot SHAVE the CORNERS of the beard. Shaving, they believe, means using a blade on the face, not scissors. So, they believe an electric razor is essentially a glorified pair of scissors. No Orthodox will shave with a razor, and many won’t even use an electric razor.Mind you, just about all Hassidim and haredim will not even trim their beard. The kaballah, (no, not that nonsense Madonna believes in), says the beard is something of a conduit for godliness, so it’s a bad idea to trim/cut it… People who followed me for a long time on Twitter can tell you stories about my beard length.As far the mustache is concerned, there is Biblical precedence for trimming it, it’s in Samuel II, I don’t remember chapter/verse…Personally, I do believe Judaism has always been an evolving religion, and they have found adaptations to fit the times they lived in. It’s just more fun to hear the arguments, no?To be continued…..

  5. Rebcart says

    There’s an old Russian anecdote about the rule that apparently exists that you can’t give orders on sabbath, either.The man of the house asks his wife, in earshot of his servant (who doesn’t speak Hebrew), “Would it be breaking the rules of sabbath to say ” (servant’s name), make us some tea” ? ” Of course, he says the first part, directed to his wife, in Hebrew, and the second, hypothetical order in the language the servant understands. The servant then makes some tea, because she interprets it as an order, and the Jew is satisfied that he got around the rule with a convenient loophole.The way I see it, if you’re so annoyed by the rules that you smugly use loopholes around them, why not just stop following the rules? It’s not as if your all-knowing deity doesn’t know your intent in the loopholes, after all.

  6. says

    @Wayne Colvin and David LernerI totally understand what you guys are trying to say. Remember, I was a religious jew for a long time, too.WayneMy point was why bother undermining the laws that were written? Why can you carry things in a town with an eruv but you can’t when the town doesn’t? The eruv was created to eliminate the problem by creating that boundary, but what’s the point when you can just erect a boundary and get rid of the taboo? Why bother with the taboo in the first place if it is so easy to circumvent?DavidAgain, for those who make the distinction, (and some absolutely refuse either way, which is at least internally consistent albeit gross) why bother with the difference between a shaving action and a scissor action? It’s accomplishing the same task. You can totally get a clean shave with an electric razor nowadays…what is the point in making the distinction anymore?

  7. says

    Kosher outside the home:Not something that was done in the orthodox community, and when I was in Yeshiva, we would make fun of those people too.Shabbos EruvThe prohibition of carrying on Shabbos is carrying 4 cubits in a public domain, or taking an object from private/public or vice-versa. Public domain is defined in the Talmud, and rest assured that other than big, busy public streets like in Manhattan, most streets don’t fall into this category.Most streets actually fall into the category of Karmelis (כרמלית). This category includes things like fields, oceans and most wide open, not-heavily traveled areas. Now, from a halakhic standpoint, it’s easy to convert a Karmelis into a private domain (רשות היחיד), and the way that’s done is by making a sort of enclosure, yes, with a string.Timer:The timer was set before shabbos, so in a sense, you turned on/off the lights BEFORE shabbos, it just has a delayed effect.They believe that if god is perfect, and he left a loophole, he left it there intentionally. So there’s no problem with setting a timer.

  8. says

    Such a rule doesn’t exist.It DOES sounds like the roundabout ways to get a goy to do work for you on Shabbos (אמירה לנכרי). It’s also a complete cheat but permissible.I realize that if I have to explain the rationale they give behind every shabbes loophole, I’m gonna be here all night! I’m sure Jen would like the company though. :)

  9. says

    They don’t believe that trimming the beard is the problem, they believe it’s the placing the blade on the SKIN.Hey, I believe complete nonsense. I just enjoy explaining Halakha, considering I spent/wasted years of my life studying it…

  10. says

    Oh yes. Of course it is complete nonsense…and both of us wasted so much of our life thinking about them. That’s why I had so much fun talking about it. =P

  11. LS says

    In defense of dem Jews, I know of at least one Jew who takes the rules quite seriously and does not take advantage of loopholes.I’ve actually known him since he was 12 (he’s 22 now) and I can testify that he’s never, ever, shaved. =PHis rationale was “I can’t find the corners of my beard, so I don’t shave any of it, just to be safe.”

  12. says

    I think part of the misunderstanding that comes in discussing stuff like this is people who don’t know much about Judaism are perplexed that something like an eruv would go against what they think a religious practice should be. But of course everyone who isn’t an orthodox Jew does not accept the same religious ideals that orthodox Judaism does!A second reason for misunderstanding is that Judaism is a very content-rich religion (ie. very different from a religion that has a few basic rules and creeds) so there’s a high barrier to understanding what a practice is actually about — a lot more background info is needed than for most other religions.As someone who knows a bit of the details I can say that although some of these aren’t as arbitrary as they might seem (as per David’s explanations), a lot still are — as would be expected of any religion. For instance, when the time came to decide what to do about Shabbat lights, it would have also been consistent to prohibit them as being contrary to the “spirit” of Shabbat — that kind of thing happens all the time.

  13. StephenS says

    Cool. So any loophole you come up with must have been left by god? Isn’t that license to do anything? The fact that you did it, and god didn’t prevent it, must mean it’s okay with god. Or am I missing something?

  14. says

    Well, the loopholes must be consistent with existing Jewish law and all the mountains of accepted established tradition. But within that framework I think it’s pretty open (of course things do occasionally get outright altered but that’s much rarer).

  15. says

    There is a process for applying existing law to new situations and even for changing existing laws (although that’s supposed to be deferred until the Messianic era) but just like everything the reality of it is much messier than the actual process would have you believe.

  16. says

    Can you really blame them for outsourcing? Besides, mevushal wine tastes like ass, and we can’t have the Goyim seeing our non-mevushal wine! They’d turn it into yayin nesech! :-p

  17. says

    Both my fridge and oven have ‘sabbath’ settings. This takes care of creating light (and turning on the fridge fan/compressor after opening the door) and allows the ovento run (lightless) for 24hrs, overriding the safety shutoff. My only thoughts were that this one seems to cancel out any EnergyStar ratings the stove may have had and I can’t imagine what the energy bills are like in homes that use this feature.

  18. says

    Sorry for joining the party late, but I just found your blog through a Web search.Thank you for posting this.  In my experience, too many “freethinkers” think that only some religions are fair game for critical thought, while others are off limits.

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