Keeping primary day holy

Rabbis sent out messages a week and a half ago encouraging congregants to vote absentee or after sunset on Saturday’s primary so as voting will not conflict with observing the Jewish Sabbath.

This year in South Carolina, last week’s Republican primary and this week’s Democratic primary are on Saturdays — the Jewish Sabbath.

For observant Jewish voters, this poses a dilemma, for the Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest and reflection, a day to be with family and to thank God for those blessings he has bestowed.

It’s not a day to work, to write, to operate machines or electronic devices, to vote.

“Jews are allowed to violate the Sabbath (only) to save a life,” and only when that life is faced with an immediate threat, said Rabbi Moshe Davis of the Orthodox Brith Sholom Beth Israel synagogue.

One might interpret a primary election as an urgent matter of life and death, Davis said, but the threat is not really immediate enough to get God to waive the rule.

Twenty-one states and territories are holding primary elections on a Saturday this year, including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, which have sizable Jewish populations. States with the largest Jewish populations, such as Florida and New York, hold their primaries on Tuesday.

Still, the number of Orthodox Jews are relatively few, especially in South Carolina. The Charleston metropolitan area is home to about 6,000 Jews, only a small portion of whom are Orthodox.

Voting on a Saturday might not work for observant Jews, but it’s probably a good day — better than a busy workday — for everyone else.

Davis said he has dealt with the voting-on-the-Sabbath problem by advising his congregation to cast an absentee ballot or vote early.

“In fact, my synagogue and one of the other synagogues sent out an email a week and a half ago encouraging congregants to observe the Sabbath and vote in absentee,” he said. “South Carolina is very accommodating.”

Citing a religious conflict is reason enough to cast an early vote, and the authorities are happy to accept the explanation, Davis said.

Rabbi Yossi Refson of Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country said there are two main issues: one logistical, one philosophical.

Jews who chose to observe the Sabbath strictly will need to vote early or rush to cast their ballot after sunset, but before 7 p.m. when the polls close, on Saturday.

The bigger concern has to do with the nature of the Sabbath, Refson said. “Shabbat is not really a day that goes well with voting. It’s supposed to be spiritual. ... Voting is mundane, secular, earthly. Shabbat is a day when we connect to the ultimate commander-in-chief.”

Still, Refson doesn’t tell his fellow Jews what to do.

“I don’t work in God’s enforcement department, I work in his PR department,” he said.

The conflict between an observant Jew’s obligation to observe God’s law and his obligation to participate in the democratic process has its silver lining, Refson noted.

“It’s a good opportunity to bring up the conversation about Shabbat and what it’s all about,” he said.

And what it’s all about is counting one’s blessings and being with family. It’s not about the process of creating or accomplishing more, it’s about “being happy with what we have already.”

A vote can be faxed or mailed in advance. The Sabbath day, instead, is holy.

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