What's the Difference Between a Pastrami Sandwich and Shabbat?

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I was at a three day religious gathering of some very nice people recently, many of them Jews who had come to believe in Yeshua, the Man from Nazareth and Messiah of Israel. Anyone who has hung out with Jewish Yeshua believers and who has bothered to think and observe will know that Jewish Yeshua believers are a widely diverse crowd. Even though some detractors try and discredit us with blanket characterizations, the blanket is much too small and it always fails to cover the reality of who we are.

This being the case, I must report that I don’t resonate at all with the outlooks and perspectives of some Jewish Yeshua believers, and many Jewish Yeshua believers don’t resonate with or identify with my views very much either. This is called diversity folks. Wide diversity.

So it is that the other night I heard someone at one of these meetings refer to Jewish religious life as “Jewish culture.”   Sorry folks, but my red flag went up real high at that one. Why?  Consider the question which serves as the title of today’s blog: “What’s the difference between a pastrami sandwich and shabbat?”  Think about it! Here comes my answer.

A pastrami sandwich is an artifact of Jewish culture, but Shabbat is very much more than that: Shabbat is a covenantal sign.  The same may be said in broad terms of Jewish religious life. It is NOT simply Jewish culture: it is the stuff of Jewish covenantal living or the lack thereof.

If I fail to eat a pastrami sandwich, even though I am a Jew, I do not compromise my Jewish identity or loyalties by failing to do so.  But not keeping Shabbat, not remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, that is something else.


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Let me make the contrast sharper.  I heard the other day of a Jewish believer in Yeshua whose religious organizational employer obliged her to fulfill a speaking engagement to a group of Christians on Yom Kippur. I shared this information just this morning with a good friend whose husband heads up another religious organization of Jews who believe in Yeshua. When I told her of this other person’s having been obliged to fulfill a deputational [fund raising] meeting for a Jewish Yeshua-believing organization on Yom Kippur, both she and her adult daughter turned pale and reacted with appropriate face-twisting horror. Why?  Because Yom Kippur, as Shabbat, and other aspects of Jewish religious life I could list, are not pastrami sandwiches. They are not simply “do it if that’s your style” Jewish behaviors. They are not, like a pastrami sandwich, simply artifacts of Jewish culture. They are part of a web of covenantal faithfulness which we Jews are obliged to maintain. And when we fail to maintain that web of faithfulness, we detract from the glory of God.

Moses put it this way:

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? [Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:5-8]

A pastrami sandwich is Jewish culture: but the commandments God gave to our people are far more than that.  And it gives me indigestion when people forget the difference.

How about you?


  1. “A pastrami sandwich is Jewish culture: but the commandments God gave to our people are far more than that. And it gives me indigestion when people forget the difference.” I sort of chuckled when I read this comment…not because it is ‘funny’ but because it is sad… sad to know there are so many who cannot accept the relationship created by G-d with the Jewish people. Perhaps you should create a word list followed by definitions…

    1. I am not creating a word list but I have a book in me that is waiting its place in line. It will be a book defining terms and concepts useful for discussing the kinds of things I discuss. It will not be a glossary, but more a set of patterned and somewhat detailed explanations. You’ll have to read it when it comes out!

  2. I’m not a practicing Jew, although there is a connection genealogically. My great great great grandparents came to the US with a group of Jewish immigrants who were from the same place in what is ,today, Germany. Within one generation, they had begun the transition to Christianity via marriage and isolation from others of their faith. Not a lot of Jewish folks in the middle of the Southwest back then. However, there are still things we do in our family, mostly upon the insistence of my Grannie, that still reflect the history of my family. So I guess we are pastrami sandwiches. But I have great respect for the people who live their deeply held beliefs.

    1. Karron, I love interacting with you on Facebook. But here I think you misunderstand me. I am NOT comparing people to pastrami sandwiches! I am not talking about people, but instead am decrying what phiosopher Gilbert Ryle called “category mistakes,” cases where we talk of something in terms appropriate only to something of a radically different kind. My point is that to reduce divinely given Jewish covenantal obligations to merely Jewish “culture” as some missionaries to the Jews and some Jewish believers in Jesus do trivializes divine imperatives as if they were nothing more than cultural distinctives like Ashenazi Jews liking bagels and lox, as if to say, “One guy likes bagels and lox, the other one likes to keep Shabbat. To each his own.” No . . . this is sloppy thinking, it is a category mistake. The mandates of God and the furniture of Jewish covenantal obedience should not be regarded as cultural artifacts and mannerisms. I trust you will agree, and that you are clear that no offense to you, your family, or anyone else is intended!

  3. Shalom Stuart
    I found your article quite interesting and you have a good point. I do have a question however. Pastrami sandwich (which is delicious btw) could not be considered part of casherut that fall into G -d’s mitsvot for His People? Also many mitsvot are not mentioned by the Torah (or at least the way they are to be observed take Yom kipuur for instance) and so we have to rely on the Chulkhan Arukh or the Talmud that say that all mitsvot are equally important , nu? And would not be an observance of the sort you suggest risk to become a little too subjective in the long run ? I believe in YEshua and I am Chabad and maybe I am slightly too narrow minded on this but I also convinced of the importance of the “practice” against assimilation . Le’chaim!!

    1. Myriam! Thank you for writing in. I appreciate your questions. However, the point I made in my blog posting was much more narrow. I was only using the pastrami sandwich as an example of a merely cultural Jewish behavior and arguing that we must never confuse merely cultural behaviors which entail no obligation or connection to our faithfulness to God, with covenantal behaviors which DO entail obligation and are related to whether we are or are not walking in paths of faithfulness to our calling as part of the Jewish people, a covenantal people. Again, the pastram sandwich was only a metaphor: the issue of whether the pastrami was kosher or not is extraneous to how I was using the item in my argument. Similarly, you ask a good question about where we find valid standards of Jewish practice. I may address this in a future blog post, but not this one! If you want to know more about what I think on the subject, visit http://ourrabbis.org/main/ and look for material on STANDARDS.

      Thanks again for your questions.

  4. thanks dear Stuart,
    it is a pleasure to interact with you. I have been reading the “Standards” materials and it was absolutely great, very interesting and I appreciated it very much indeed.
    I am looking forwards to reading what you think about valid standards of Jewish practice, but all these depend, in my opinion (I am no rabbi Stuart, all my questioning is caused by my wanting to understand, find a way of living as a Jewish believer etc…so please forgive my ignorance !) to the concept of Jewish-ness. “Who is Jew?” and “what does it mean to be a Jew?” that is “what make a Jew, a Jew?”. Judaism is a carnal election. If we get too “ethical” or if we start converting Judaism into “ethics” ( = I mean a more or less “charitable” interpretation of the Torah ) we would inevitably fall into assimilation…and our election is intimately related to the historicity of Judaism, which is, like it or not, rabbinic Judaism.
    So : what about rabbinic tradition ? what about the fact that being a Jew needs only to be raised as a Jew even if one has not a Jewish mother ? We cannot escape tradition: there is not a single “Jewish” observance that is not “touched” by
    rabbinic tradition. Jewish religious life has always
    been based on the establishment of a communal framework for interpreting, applying, and living out the mitsvot. The very existence of the Jewish
    people depends upon Jewish practice and Jewish
    rhythms of life. Moreover, Rabbinic authority is
    the halakhic authority that Israel accepted as legitimate successor of Moshé rabbinu !
    By the same token, Yeshua MUST have brought some kind of novelty…something “different”… but what ? WHAT ?
    Finally, my question is : what is, according to you, the place of Rabbinic tradition for Jewish believers in Yeshua ?
    As you see, you made a great mistake in encouraging me with questions…once I get started, I am an endless flow your life won’t be long enough to regret it !!
    thanks (in advance) for your patience !
    PS I did not know where to post my question so I thought best continuing in the poor “pastrami saga”…

  5. Shalom Achi,
    I found this a very good commentary for this time. 12/13 yrs ago at the conferences I attended, you taught at several of them, we were just starting the push towards a more mature Messianic Judaism. We were seeking to elevate the movement beyond where it was at that time. Back then tefillin and tzitzit were a novelty rarely seen. I got plenty of stares when I started wearing them. I agree with you that sadly observance of G-d’s commands have come to be seen as cultural, and the observance of then in many places is done to give Jewish seekers a “culturally” comfortable to seek. We need to move past “culture” and move to observance. Culture is good at an oneg Shabbat, or a bar mitzvah party, especially when its gastronomically cultural :), but not in terms of covenant fidelity. Our loyalty to HaShem in living out the mitzvoth will speak better to the larger Jewish community , then just cultural trappings. Yasher Koach!

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