Judaism and maritime

A friend and I were discussing religious topics on board (I know, I know) and Judaism came up. Neither of us knew of any practicing Jewish folks on ships. We guessed it was the restriction on working on Saturday (Shabbat).

So, some background. Shabbat prohibits work from sunset to sunset every Saturday except to save a life (i.e. emergency room doctor) or standing ready to save a life (soldier standing his post). We figured a watch stander could be justified as a ship without a lookout could hit or be hit resulting in death. Also, we figured an engineer on duty would qualify as a ship without power/propulsion could also endanger life.

But what about other shipboard positions that are customarily performed daily at sea. A cook, steward, maybe a chief mate or master? Even a QMED or electrician might have to stay in his or her stateroom unless called out by an obligation to save life. The Shabbat work prohibition seems like it would exclude an observant Jewish follower from maritime careers.

Anyone have experience with this and can unwrap this riddle? Are we correct in guessing the reason we haven’t noticed any observant Jewish mariners in our careers? I’ve worked with folks of many religions but never - to my knowledge - a single observant follower of Judaism.

They wouldn’t be of much use on our ships as we seem to exist mainly on fried pork.


Maybe it’s more cultural (there’s that word again) than religious.Aren’t catholics not supposed to work on Sundays?

I sailed with a Jewish Engine Utilityman at MSC, great guy! Devout in his younger days, lapsed as he got older though. Read a Hebrew prayer during Passover though, said it was like riding a bike. He’d make jokes that he could work passed sundown on Friday - I think he was hitting up the club rather than temple haha

I’m sure there’s quite a few cultural Jewish folks sailing, but you don’t see too many devout religious people of any denomination out on these ships.

As a cadet I sailed with skinhead who found out he was 1/16th Jewish after taking a 29 and Me test… turned his whole life upside down until he researched how badass the IDF was. Probably got the Star of David tatoo’d on his chest after his hitch was done…


Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast describes ship-board practices on the Sabbath in a few sections.

This day was spent like all pleasant Sabbaths at sea. The decks are washed down, the rigging coiled up, and everything put in order; and throughout the day, only one watch is kept on deck at a time. The men are all dressed in their best white duck trowsers, and red or checked shirts, and have nothing to do but to make the necessary changes in the sails. They employ themselves in reading, talking, smoking, and mending their clothes. If the weather is pleasant, they bring their work and their books upon deck, and sit down upon the forecastle and windlass. This is the only day on which these privileges are allowed them. When Monday comes, they put on their tarry trowsers again, and prepare for six days of labor.

To enhance the value of the Sabbath to the crew, they are allowed on that day a pudding, or, as it is called, a “duff.” This is nothing more than flour boiled with water, and eaten with molasses. It is very heavy, dark, and clammy, yet it is looked upon as a luxury, and really forms an agreeable variety with salt beef and pork. Many a rascally captain has made friends of his crew by allowing them duff twice a week on the passage home.

On board some vessels this is made a day of instruction and of religious exercises; but we had a crew of swearers, from the captain to the smallest boy; and a day of rest, and of something like quiet, social enjoyment, was all that we could expect.

Also this:

Some officers have been so driven to find work for the crew in a ship ready for sea, that they have set them to pounding the anchors (often done) and scraping the chain cables. The “Philadelphia Catechism” is,

“Six days shalt thou labor and do all thou art able,
And on the seventh—holystone the decks and scrape the cable.”

1 Like

What about the Israeli shipping line ‘ZIM’, now a private Israeli company?
Aren’t there, at least partially, Jewish crew on board?

I was frequently calling in Haifa in the late 90’s and was told that the ZIM ships were all crewed by east Indians.


I sailed with 2. One was a SUNY cadet on his summer tour. Great guy & I’m sure he has done good with whatever direction he went with in life. The second was a miserable fellow who wore a Star of David chain around his neck & would only bring up being Jewish when arguing something & things weren’t going his way. The guy was so bad the mate would joke that the company could charge universities a fee to allow them permission to come aboard & study that nutcase to see what made him tick. Turns out he was horrified of flying & we were delivering a vessel to Africa. Closer to the end of the trip the groucher he got. Even being doped with anxiety pills & liquored up’ed didn’t help his personality on the flight back to the US. I told the company to keep me away from him & the same at a different company/union that we both worked.


Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the major Abrahamic religions all observe the Sabbath. That was where the so-called Blue Laws came from.

Likely that is why sailing on Fridays was considered bad luck;

Dana again:

Sunday, Oct. 4th. This was the day of our arrival; and somehow or other, our captain always managed not only to sail, but to come into port, on a Sunday. The main reason for sailing on the Sabbath is not, as many people suppose, because Sunday is thought a lucky day, but because it is a leisure day. During the six days, the crew are employed upon the cargo and other ship’s works, and the Sabbath, being their only day of rest, whatever additional work can be thrown into Sunday, is so much gain to the owners. This is the reason of our coasters, packets, etc, sailing on the Sabbath. They get six good days’ work out of the crew, and then throw all the labor of sailing into the Sabbath. Thus it was with us, nearly all the time we were on the coast, and many of our Sabbaths were lost entirely to us. The Catholics on shore have no trading and make no journeys on Sunday, but the American has no national religion, and likes to show his independence of priestcraft by doing as he chooses on the Lord’s day.

Blue laws also prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays in many places. They still do in some.


Maine was the last New England state to repeal laws that prohibited department stores from opening on Sundays. The laws against the department stores opening on Sundays were ended by referendum in 1990. Recent efforts to overturn the laws restricting automobile dealerships from opening on Sunday have died in committee in the Maine legislature.[17] Rep. Don Pilon of Saco has led the effort to get rid of the laws that prohibit automobile dealerships from opening for business on Sundays. Hunting is prohibited on Sundays.[18]

Maine is also one of three states where it is illegal for almost all businesses to open on Thanksgiving, most notably the big department stores.[[19]]


State law permits alcohol sales between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. the following day with additional time allowed for the early morning on New Year’s Day.[20] A restriction on early morning Sunday sales was repealed in 2015.[21]

When I worked in BC in the 1960’s, some bars still had 2 entrances, one for men and one for ‘ladies and escorts’ from a time when unaccompanied women were not allowed. Some of the rules listed on the website below still existed.
They would stop serving an hour before closing to let people sober up before going home. Instead, patrons would order a table full of drinks and guzzle them down before closing.

1 Like

I didn’t know blue laws still existed though I remember them well along with dry counties. I had a friend whose father in law died and shortly thereafter my buddy quit work. When I asked him how he managed to do that he said his wife received a large inheritance from her dad. I asked what his late father in law did for a living. He said the man was sheriff of a dry county for 30 years.

They still exist in my county. Hard liquor only sold at state govt outlets which are closed on Sundays and no beer sales before noon on Sundays.

1 Like

Yes, grew up in places like that. The hardcore Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians ran things. Sharia law and the Taliban had nothing on those folks.


Most of the Nordic countries have very restrictive laws on sale of alcohol, with Denmark being the exception.
Here is an article about the subject as seen from an American point of view:

PS> This has eased up considerable since my young days, when Aalesund was a dry town (officially) Today there are beer (<4.75%) in every Supermarket and several Vinmonopol outlets within the municipality. Sales time limits are as described in the article.

Some of my extended family live in East and SE Kentucky. Has many dry counties to this day. Bootleggers have the nicest spreads down that way.

I haven’t seen any practicing Jews on our boats but I have sure as hell seen plenty of anti-semites.

I used to sweep that under the rug but I now refuse to work with any open anti-semite. My partner is Jewish, her whole family is Jewish, and it helped to really demistify amy notions I had about Judaism before.

It’s more of an ultraorthodox thing that Jews won’t work on the shabbat. Remeber Harley Franco, I understand that he and his family are Jewish, he stayed hands on 24/7, though he never worked on the boats themselves.


I’ve heard rumors that sometimes these DNA test companies add a few percentage points of Jewish or sub-Saharan ancestry to screw with white people who are racist. But it can work in some people’s favor, there was the case in the news of a guy called Ralph Taylor who thought he was white, then took a DNA test that came back as 4% sub-Saharan, he then tried to use that as evidence he was a minority in order to get financial benefits from affirmative action and diversity programs.

Recently I watched a video about a wire that stretches all the way around Manhattan, I think it is just fishing line, but it is there so that Orthodox Jews can go outside on Shabbat.

So, I worked on a supply boat out of Haifa and we had practicing Jews join our crew for the local content requirements, so I may be able to answer this a little. Most of them would self describe as Masorti or “traditional jews.”

Best description for someone outside the Jewish faith is that they did their best to observe the mitzvot, but also knew that their career made following some of it hard. They all kept kashrut to an extent but obviously didn’t require separate dishes (or kitchens) for meat and dairy. Saturdays were usually pretty quiet for us and they were able to run home and spend time with family if we were in port.

The only time it got really funny is when our Filipino cook would make something with pork belly or bacon… one of the guys would refer to it as “zebra meat” and just dig in. Apparently zebra meat is a kind of understood code for eating something treif and to please not call it pork so they could eat it in peace.