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Asking Somebody "What do you do?" at the Shabbat Table...


Rabbi Chaim Tabasky

21 Sivan 5765
My question has to do with a question that I am asked a lot at the Shabbat table by well-meaning people- "What do you do?", which obviously means "What line of work do you do?" In my opinion, this question should be off limits at the Shabbat table, yet I have been asked this question by virtually all my hosts as well as fellow guests at the Shabbat table. This question makes me uncomfortable on Shabbat for two reasons. First of all, isn’t talking about malacha on Shabbat forbidden (no less than watching TV or turning lights on or off)? Second of all, what if an individual (and I have been there before) is either unemployed or has a job he/she is miserable at and dreads going to everyday and would just love to forget about it on Shabbat? Asking this individual this particular question on Shabbat makes his/her "oneg Shabbat". Shouldn’t Rabbis now step forward and publicly denounce this universally asked question at the Shabbat table as off-limits on Shabbat?
1. The prohibition of speaking of weekday matters on Shabbat does not forbid speaking of one’s profession. It also does not forbid speaking of all weekday activities. Rather it is forbidden to plan on Shabbat to do after Shabbat that which is forbidden to do on Shabbat. Thus, one may not say on Shabbat “Tomorrow let’s cook a big dinner” or “Let’s drive to Haifa” since these activities are forbidden on Shabbat. It is permitted to say “Yesterday I drove to Haifa” since that is not planning, or “Tomorrow we will go to Haifa” since that activity is not essentially forbidden. (In theory, if the towns extended throughout the trip one could walk to Haifa on Shabbat). It should be discouraged from making plans on Shabbat since it is easy to get confused and mention forbidden activities, but it is not forbidden per se and one should never be rude about it. There is not prohibition of discussing one’s weekday activities on Shabbat, and one may certainly divulge his/her profession. 2. It is always important to refrain from asking embarrassing questions. Most people are unaware that asking what someone does could be hitting a raw nerve. I suggest that we all try to stress the importance of sensitivity to the feelings of others. I don’t know if I would single out this issue as the most crucial, but you are certainly correct that feelings are sometimes hurt. There are many ways to make this point, I suggest you discuss it with your companions and see what they think.
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