Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Shomer Shabbos Battlin' Bukharian Barbers!

So, beautiful West Hempstead, NY boasted its first Bukharian Jewish barber, Yuri, around eight years ago. Being relatively hair challenged, I don't frequent barber shops that much, so I'd missed the fact that Bukharian Jewish immigrants had become the latest immigrant group to use barber-ing as starter businesses towards the American dream (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10445-2004Jul23.html). Back when I had serious hair, Italian immigrants had the lock on this line of business, at least in my native Chicago.

Soon enough, Serge, another Bukharian Jewish immigrant, also found West Hempstead to be a lucrative market, and we now had some real market competition (not counting Reggie's, which has the African-American barber business in town locked up).

The businesses were similar, yet competitive. Both offered low prices. Both offered one basic style - short. Both had 2 or 3 barbers, little if any wait. And both had hours that were posted on the door, yet still oddly unpredictable. But, curiously enough, Yuri and his crew sported black kippot, while Serge and his folks were bareheaded. And Yuri closed in the late afternoon on Friday, and reopened on Sunday



More recently, Serge sold the business to Abraham and Isaac (these are actually NOT psuedonyms), also Bukharian immigrants. And suddenly, a sign went up that the store was "shomer shabbos."

For the uninitiated, Shabbat observance has, throughout history, been defined by halacha (Jewish practice) as a key indicator of a person being an observant Jew and one who could be safely expected to be ethically reliable. It was for this reason that Shabbat observance had become a prerequisite for one to be an acceptable witness in legal situations in the observant Jewish community. The demand that Kosher food businesses (if not the owners of the businesses themselves) be closed on Shabbat (or in some cases, sold to a gentile if opened on Shabbat) likewise stemmed from these assumptions.

There were only two problems with the assumptions:

1. It could no longer be assumed that one who was not shomer shabbat was not ethically unreliable.


2. It could no longer be assumed that one who was shomer shabbat was ethically reliable (for a shomer shabbos guy who wasn't so ethical, but apparently can't pray in his jail cell, see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/16/us/16prison.html?ref=us ; for a shomer shabbat guy who has no problem selling non-Kosher meat as Kosher, see http://wcbstv.com/watercooler/Kosher.Jewish.Monsey.2.237901.html ).

In any case, there is a halachic issue of Jews benefiting from work done by other Jews on Shabbat. But, unless I missed class one day in rabbi school, there is nothing about one's barber (or barber shop) needing to be shomer shabbat. And...

Non-scientific observational research, conducted by The Notorious R.A.V. & Associates, show that Long Island boasts signs proclaiming many of the following types of businesses as being shomer shabbat: florists, auto mechanic, exterminator, plumber, electricians, accountants and more. You can even check out their businesses at http://www.yiddele.com/, which describes itself as The Shomer Shabbos Business Club.

So what's the problem here? Check out the following text from the mishnah:


Rabbi Tzadok used to say: Do not make the Torah a crown with which to aggrandize
yourself, nor use it as a spade with which to dig. As Hillel used to say: He who
makes worldly use of the crown of the Torah shall perish. Thus you may infer
that any one who exploits the words of the Torah removes himself from the world
of life.

As I understand this text, we are not to use the Torah, its knowledge, or its observance, as something that will make us bigger. Or will grow our business. Shabbat observance is an ethical and spiritual statement, not part of one's marketing plan. We cheapen the significance of Shabbat and of Judaism when we use them as part of a business plan, rather than as part of our life plan.

My advice: Let's get back to humility. You're shomer shabbat? Me, too. It's not on my business card or my office door; I don't need to see it on yours.

And for consumers, it's even easier: if you don't want an exterminator or plumber on Shabbat, don't call one on Shabbat.

As for Yuri, Abraham, Isaac and Serge...welcome to the 'hood. Now compete for business like everyone else. See you when I need a haircut...about every 3 - 4 months.