In a city marinated in archaic traditions, rigid rituals and surreal customs, Abu Ali still has one of Jerusalem's oddest jobs.
JERUSALEM — In a city marinated in archaic traditions, rigid rituals and surreal customs, Abu Ali still has one of Jerusalem’s oddest jobs.
This 52-year-old Muslim serves Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as a so-called Shabbos Goy.
From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, when strictly observant Jews honor the holy day of rest by taking a break from work, TV, laptops, cellphones, shopping and the normal vagaries of life, Abu Ali is there to serve their emergency Sabbath needs.
He turns on air conditioners for families when it’s hot. He turns off lights accidentally left on. And he rushes pregnant wives to the hospital. Lots of pregnant wives.
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Abu Ali, who asked to be identified only by his nickname because he’s kept his unusual job from friends and neighbors, is one of a select few Arab-Israelis working as a Shabbos Goy in Jerusalem. He’s an atypical Muslim serving Orthodox Jews in a city where the two communities more often collide than connect.
“When I am here on the Sabbath, I am the king,” he said one recent Friday at sundown as Orthodox men in black satin overcoats rushed by. “Everybody knows me. Everybody needs me.
“But after the Sabbath, nobody knows me,” Abu Ali said with a shrug. “It’s the nature of things.”
This irregular Shabbos Goy trade grew out of a unique need in Orthodox communities for non-Jewish help on the Sabbath. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Jewish law calls on the observant to take a break from life. Cellphones are turned off. No one is allowed to drive. Meals must be cooked in advance. There’s no TV. No computer. No shopping.
But times come when these observant families need help: A fuse blows. Someone accidentally leaves a light on in the bedroom. Someone needs to get to the hospital to give birth.
In those instances, Orthodox Jews call a Shabbos Goy.
For three years, Abu Ali set up an informal Shabbos Goy trade in the hospital emergency room of an adjacent neighborhood. When the medical center closed, he started anew, right down the street.
Two months ago, community leaders bought a small plastic shed — the kind used for storing lawn mowers and rakes — for Abu Ali to work out of each week. It’s big enough for a white plastic chair and a small refrigerator filled with soda.
Taped to the shed door, in big black Hebrew letters on fluorescent-yellow paper: Shabbos Goy.
Like any archaic tradition, getting non-Jews to help on the Sabbath has evolved over time. Talmudic scholars, Jewish academics and Israeli lawmakers all have wrestled with how to balance religious devotion and modern life.
Since observant Jews can’t ask for help, they use a special code with Abu Ali. If they need the air conditioner turned on, they tell him that it’s hot. If they need a light turned on or a fuse changed, they say that it’s dark.
Abu Ali charges about $10 per visit. If he has to rush a pregnant woman to the hospital — something he said he sometimes has to do three or four times each Sabbath — it costs about $30.
The families aren’t supposed to pay him for his services, so the community set up a box outside the neighborhood synagogue where people can put the money.
Though the ultra-Orthodox community might seem insular to the outside world, Abu Ali said he’d broken through the suspicions.
“If you don’t know them, they’re difficult,” he said. “But when you get to know them, they’re trustworthy.”