There are 39 Shabbat prohibitions, things that observant Jews are told we must not do on Shabbat. They are, briefly, Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, aaaaaaaaaand... Marking. (http://www.ou.org/chagim/shabbat/thirtynine.htm) And if you read this list quickly, you may think that it must be very easy to be observant about the Sabbath, because, really, how many of us practice shearing, slaughtering, skinning, or tanning these days? And what on earth is smoothing?
In fact, as you will see if you read the list at the Orthodox Union website offered above, it's not that easy at all. We come from a rabbinic tradition - as times change, our sages, rabbis, and learned scholars have all offered interpretations of words, laws, and traditions that were first described centuries ago. So we know (if we read the definitions at www.ou.org!) that carrying, for instance, "absolutely forbids all carrying in the street. Even such trivial things as a key or a handkerchief must be left at home. Certainly pocketbooks, purses, wallets and key-chains may not be carried. The only thing one may carry outdoors are things that are actually worn." It's ok to carry something in your private home, but not outside.
Wow. Then there's burning. This actually means, "making a fire or causing anything to burn.
Even throwing a toothpick into a fire is considered a violation of the Sabbath under this category.
This is another category of work mentioned specifically in the Torah, as we find (Ex. 35:3), "You shall not light a fire at home on the Sabbath day." Not only that, but also this!
Obviously, this category forbids such acts as striking a match or turning on a stove.It also prohibits smoking on the Sabbath.
An automobile engine works by burning gasoline. Turning on the ignition and stepping on the accelerator causes it to burn. It is therefore forbidden to drive a car on the Sabbath.
Heating a piece of metal so that it glows is also in the category of burning.(Note 11) When an electric light is turned on, its filament is heated white hot, producing light. This is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.
In general, any use of electricity violates the spirit of the Sabbath, since it involves extracting energy from nature. According to many authorities, electricity has the same status as fire with regard to the Sabbath. In any case, the practice of all observant Jews is to avoid turning any electrical appliance on or off. Since a telephone also works by electricity, it also should not be used.
Does this mean that no matter how much I try, I will never be, as they say, Shomer Shabbat? Good ol' Wikipedia tells us that "...the shomer Shabbat is expected to conform to the prohibitions against certain forms of work. The observant Jew does not cook, spend money, write, turn on or off electrical devices, or do other activities prohibited on Shabbat. In addition, a variety of positive Sabbath commandments are expected to be fulfilled, such as Sabbath meals and prayers."
This looks worse and worse!! Does this mean, then, that the tallit I made, every single stitch a prayer, would violate the Shabbat prohibitions if I were to have worked on it from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday? Yup, that's precisely what it does mean. Wow.
So... will I never be a good enough Jew?
Well, if the Shabbat prohibitions were the only measurement of a 'good Jew,' then I think that most of us could fall solidly into the mire with me! But I don't think that they're the only way to be a 'good Jew.'
What is a good Jew, anyhow? The way I understand it, it's someone who tries to observe the mitzvot, someone who practices tikkun olam, someone who honours the Sabbath and keeps it holy... and there's where we get back to those 39 prohibitions.
The prohibitions were created as a way for Jews to honour the God who gave us the Sabbath (that's why the commandment is written that way!). Initially, alone in the world, Jews had a day of rest on the 7th day. Other people didn't (we can call that another gift of the Jews to the world, that whole 7th day of rest thing!). So we wanted to honour that day. And I love that idea. In fact, Shabbat is probably my most favourite day of the week, because it truly is a day that I know it's perfectly ok to concentrate on relationship - my relationship with God, my relationships with the people I love, and I try to do that. I try not to do mundane work, and I even make time to read Torah, and to learn - because that's ok on Shabbat! (But if it's ok for me to learn Torah on Shabbat, why is it not ok for me to write on Shabbat, about something I have learned from Torah?!)
It's all very confusing. But I think what it boils down to is that if Shabbat is a gift to us from God, then what we do with it is our gift to God. Think about this for a moment. We can give a gift to God? How on earth can we give a gift to the Almighty?!
We can, actually. We can practice kavanah, intentionality, in all that we do. So we can be more conscious (and conscientious) of our prayers. We can be more attentive to the people we encounter and the way we relate to them. We can be more conscious of the beauty around us and take time to praise it.
And we can try to keep these Shabbat prohibitions - because rather than just a list of rules, if we consider them as a list of things we don't have to do because it's Shabbat, we might just find that we get a little better at honouring the Sabbath and keeping it holy.