The Shabbos Mistake

At 8:42 on Shabbos morning, Sol Linderman had just risen for Borchu when Meir Epstein entered the synagogue wearing his tefillin. It took Sol a moment or two to recollect that, yes, it was indeed the Sabbath day, a day when not only does no Jewish man wear tefillin, no Jewish man even touches his tefillin. On a sea of dark-suited men, clad in hats or yarmulkes, many draped in the white folds of tallesim, not one pair of tefillin could be spied. That is, except on Meir Epstein.

Looking to his right and to his left, Sol searched for someone to correct Meir. Anyone but me, he thought. He hoped whoever offered the hint would be subtle and quick, to spare Meir the embarrassing experience of being caught breaking the laws of the Sabbath day in front of the entire congregation. Thus far, no one but Sol appeared to have noticed. The rabbi’s eyes were shut in deep concentration, and the chazzan’s were locked on the siddur open before him on the carved oak lectern.

Most of the congregation sat down after responding to the chazzan’s call to prayer and bent over their own prayerbooks. Sol noticed one, two, then three other men see Meir’s tefillin. Their puzzled looks matched Sol’s feelings, yet no one did anything about Meir’s gaffe. After all, it was forbidden to speak at this point in the service.

Waiting a heartbeat longer, Sol realized no one else would do the job. He resolved to find a way to communicate to Meir his mistake.

As Meir found his preferred row, he began to edge past the men sitting between the aisle and his seat. Sol tried to catch Meir’s eye, failing at first and then, at last, success! Desperately, Sol gestured to his hairline – or to where his hairline used to be – and to his arm. He mouthed the words, “Shabbos kodesh!” and smiled apologetically.

After a moment of confusion, Meir seemed to understand Sol’s silent entreaty. Indeed, Sol could read the words, “Shabbos kodesh?” on Meir’s lips. Meir looked right and left at the other men in the synagogue. Surely, Sol thought, Meir would notice the absence of tefillin on all the other congregants. Surely, he would find a way to remove his tefillin discretely and stash them where they’d be safe until after Shabbos ended.

Sol waited, holding his breath.

The chazzan reached the prayer Keil Adon and began to chant it to a rousing tune, a tune Sol looked forward to every Shabbos morning.

“What’s wrong with all of you?!?” shouted Meir. “Where are your tefillin? Why are you singing Keil Adon?”

The chazzan broke off abruptly at the interruption. Rabbi Ginsburg stood and walked over to Meir, silently entreating him to step out to the foyer. Meir shook off the hand on his arm.

“Where are your tefillin?” he cried out again. “It’s Friday!”

Shabbos!” proclaimed Lazer Helfgot.

“I tell you, it’s Friday!” insisted Meir.

Eighty-seven men stared back at him. Women peeked through the curtain that divided the men from the ladies’ side of the synagogue. The congregants exchanged looks with each other, looks of puzzlement, anger, sadness, and compassion – looks as varied as the people in the crowd. Not one face showed any doubt that today was Shabbos.

Again, Rabbi Ginsburg approached Meir. Meir retreated one step, then another. Knocking down a chair, he kicked it aside and screamed, “You’re all crazy. I tell you, it’s Friday.” His voice rang with certainty as he ran for the door to the lobby. With one hand on the handle, he paused. “What’s wrong with you!?!”

As he fled, Sol rushed after his friend. Their shoes slapped against the lobby’s stone flooring. Desperately, Sol sought an explanation for his friend’s confusion. Meir had no wife who would have kindled the candles on Friday night, at the start of the Sabbath. He’d had no children tugging on his jacket last night, asking for a blessing or begging for a treat like Sol’s had.

Had Sol sat alone in his apartment last night? Had he skipped the Sabbath with the Friday night service, praying the weekday one instead? Had he eaten a quick bowl of cereal, or a plate of pasta, no wine, no challah, no roasted chicken followed by a slice of cake?

A heaviness weighed down Sol’s heart. Should he have invited Meir to his home last night? If he had dined in the Linderman home last night, maybe Meir would have remembered the Sabbath day. But Meir had been the Lindermans’ neighbor for years, and since his divorce, he’d come for Shabbos dinner more often than not, and Sol had wanted a break, a quiet Shabbos with just family.

Ahead of him, Meir reached the street exit and pushed through. The door slammed shut, with a bang. A minute later, Sol reached the door himself. He laid his hands on the crash bar, but he hesitated before pressing on its cold steel.

What would he find outside? Would he find pedestrians strolling in their Shabbos best, or weekday workers rushing to their next appointments?

Was there a chance Meir was right?

A needle of fear pressed against Sol’s ribs, but he braced himself and ran outside.