Sabbath hard and go home

Growing up Jewish, I thought that the traditional rules around the Sabbath were silly. Then I forgot to bring a spare battery on a camping trip. Now I think that something like the traditional Jewish Sabbath is an important cultural adaptation to preserve leisure, that would otherwise be destroyed in an urbanized, technological civilization.

Sabbath as easy mode

As a child, I first learned that the Sabbath was a “day of rest,” a day on which you don’t do “work.” I was brought up by liberal Jews in a society in which “work” tends to mean either business or wage labor. Things you do for money. Things you do because someone else demands them. This is for the most part how we observed the Sabbath.

But I was also taught about the older traditions in which many categories of mundane activity are forbidden: lighting a fire, cutting or mending cloth, writing or erasing letters. This seemed to me like an arbitrary superstition based on an excessive literality. Surely I could tell for myself whether I was writing as part of a leisure activity or a desk job. Surely I could tell for myself whether I was planting seeds for my private garden, or on a commercial farm. Why avoid these activities in the privacy of one’s own home, doing things for oneself, and not working at all?

Likewise, Orthodox Jews must walk to and from their synagogue on the Sabbath, because driving would involve lighting a fire. Automobile engines run on combustion, after all. Liberal Jews often argued, if there is inclement weather, or if the synagogue is far, is it not more restful to take an easy drive than to walk?

In short, I thought that the rest of the Sabbath meant, or ought to mean, playing life on easy mode.

Unplugging as leisure

Recently, I’ve been feeling too caught up in local social momentum. When it looked like it would be difficult and take a long time to book a cabin to spend some time alone, I asked a friend to teach me how to go camping, to improve my range of options for solitude, both by directly giving me the affordance for camping, and by more generally expanding the range of living conditions I had experience coping with.

On my first solo two-night camping trip, I forgot to bring a backup battery to charge my laptop or phone. I was car camping, so I could have charged them that way, but I felt like that was outside the spirit of the exercise, and inconvenient anyway. So instead, I mostly kept my phone turned off. Very quickly, I started being able to think about aspects of my situation that had been too overwhelming, too in motion,  to get leverage on the day before. Because I wasn’t dealing with them. I wasn’t keeping up with anything. I was just present, where I was. I wished I’d done this years ago.

And then I realized: if I had keeping a Sabbath, it wouldn’t have taken years to take a step back from social momentum. I’d have gotten a chance within seven days of noticing that there was a problem. And seven days later, another chance, and so on.

Immediately, came the reflexive follow-up thought: of course, not the literal Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. But then I asked my self: why not, exactly?

I went through some of the more onerous-seeming requirements. You are not permitted to write. But when I went on a meditation retreat, they also asked us not to write. And I had no problem with that. It did not seem like an arbitrary superstition to me; it seemed like part of the discipline of an integrated mental practice.

Maybe the Sabbath too is a discipline meant to cultivate a particular sort of mental practice.

You are not allowed to light fires on the Sabbath, which means no cooking; you eat what has been prepared in advance. On that same meditation retreat, we were asked not to bring or prepare our own food, but to accept what was served to us. That too felt like a natural part of the practice.

Why had I been so ready to dismiss the Sabbath out of hand? Where did this prejudice come from? It came from my childhood self, who was assuming alienation of labor.

Work as keeping up

If you do not assume like a modern consumerist that work is what you do for money, and leisure is what you spend money on, then what is work? It is the activity of producing or maintaining the artifacts necessary for the ongoing production of sustenance. It is the activity of keeping up with reality. And in a civilized society with specialization of labor, where your work is only productive because it is integrated with the work of many others, work is the practice of keeping up with the predominant social reality.

What is leisure, then? Leisure is time when you are not responding to a persistent stream of demands. Not your boss, but not a television commercial or newsfeed either. You can take a walk, or sit silently with friends, and let your mind wander.

Leisure is crucial for a very particular sort of freedom. Not freedom as the range of options presented to you, or the absence of overt restrictions on your behavior, but the amount of autonomy you have in practice, the extent to which the choices you are making are determined by the combination of your own preferences and foresight, rather than the result of being led down a path of someone else’s design.

The distinction between this sort of work and leisure is not a perfect match to the Sabbath prohibitions.

You can read a book on the Sabbath (which was not allowed at the meditation retreat), and engage with your whole mind, so long as you do not take notes. So long as you do not try to produce some useful artifact, for your future self to pick up and run with.

You can also talk. Jews do not engage in Noble Silence on the Sabbath; it is not a day of silence. But it cuts out some of the more cognitively costly practices of daily life.

Sabbath as hard mode

Some automation plans make sure to include what they call a human in the loop - on some level of abstraction, every decision is reviewed by a human. You can think of the Sabbath as playing life on hard mode in order to make sure that there is a human in your loop.

You would not want to do this sort of thing all the time. But it might make sense to do periodically - perhaps once a week - as a stopgap measure to combat attention drift. If powerful and pervasive cultural forces are out to get you, you ought to check in from time to time with yourself, and other people with whom you have local, high-quality relationships, to give yourself a chance to notice whether you have gotten got for too much.

Daily meditation or reflection practice has something to offer on this front. So does the Quaker practice of silent worship. And so does the Jewish Sabbath.

Sabbath as alarm

One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.

In our commercialized society, there will be many opportunities to purchase palliatives, and these palliatives are often worth purchasing. If living close to your place of employment would be ruinously expensive, you drive or take public transit. If you don’t have time to feed yourself, you can buy some fast food. If you’re not up for talking with a friend in person, or don’t have the time, there’s Facebook. But this is palliative care for a chronic problem.

In Jewish law, it is permissible to break the Sabbath in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake. If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week - as my Reform Jewish family did - then you should consider that perhaps, despite the propaganda of the palliatives, you are in a permanent state of emergency. This is not okay. You are not doing okay.

So, how are you?

25 thoughts on “Sabbath hard and go home

  1. Zvi Mowshowitz

    You are indeed pondering what I'm pondering. Not all of it, but perhaps most of it, and the parts that I wasn't pondering before feel like things I just forgot to think of. I think the concepts of compactness, freedom from interruption and freedom from choice/decision, are crucial in addition to what is mentioned here, as is forcing you to actually talk to other people, in person, which likely wasn't an issue back when the rules were designed but is now.

    I think a lot of why we rejected Sabbath and other such concepts out of hand for so long is because we were given terrible reasons for them. If someone is devoting a day every week to something and can't explain why it's a good idea beyond "the Lord said so" and a not-further-explained "you need a day of rest" it's quite reasonable to update that there are no better reasons. I mean, these people had three thousand years to come up with a better argument and that's what you got?

    Then, and TINACBNIEAC and because obviously, we both went camping in part to know if we could and learn the skills involved, didn't have enough battery life and turned our phones off. I went for a weekend with my wife, and spent a lot of that weekend reading The Great Transformation and thinking about stuff, realized I needed to block out rest for real because oh my did I need it, and remembered that Andrew and Sarah were doing Sabbath dinners.

    Makes me think that 'go camping or do some other extended thing in nature once a year each summer' might be a good ritual/holiday, in addition to the weekly version.

    Also, my next post is queued up for Saturday morning (partly as an additional defense against checking for feedback too quickly) and is called Slack. Same page.

    You're making a case for the strong version, the original, with no modifications. I've been practicing a modified version (family requires compromise, among other concerns) but I keep modifying it towards the original, and I think the original had to look like it looked: We can all say that we know when it's OK to write for yourself versus creating for others, but without the blanket prohibition our defenses are fatally flawed, and we'll eventually get got. Deciding where to draw the lines certainly provided great information on where I was getting got and for how much.

    1. Benquo

      Makes me think that 'go camping or do some other extended thing in nature once a year each summer' might be a good ritual/holiday, in addition to the weekly version.

      Sukkot! Actually not the halakhic version this time, though maybe the Biblical version.

    2. Benquo

      Also, my next post is queued up for Saturday morning (partly as an additional defense against checking for feedback too quickly)


      I queued up the post for this morning and took the day as a Sabbath (unplugged, no writing), since I'd missed the proper one.

    3. Benquo

      You're making a case for the strong version, the original, with no modifications.

      More that the original is actually a pretty good starting point & exceptions should be viewed with a lot of skepticism.

  2. Jason Green-Lowe

    I'm really pleased that you've started such an important and interesting conversation! You raise several original and worthwhile points about what a Sabbath is and why people might bother with a Sabbath. Historically, I've had great difficulty in finding people who want to ponder those questions, and so I'm pleased that you're asking these questions, and I (mostly) like your answers. Please take the arguments below as friendly criticism and/or proposed extensions of your analysis.

    *Shabbat as not keeping up with a stream of demands*

    I agree that turning off your phone, pre-cooking your meals, staying out of the office, etc. will all contribute to helping you disconnect from society's constant stream of demands. It's a good start. I don't think it's *enough*, because for whatever reason the temptation to filter life through a series of pressing, distracting obligations is incredibly powerful. Like, if you go hang out with a bunch of Orthodox Jews on Shabbat, you won't find that they spend all day lounging around or relaxing in various spontaneous or authentic ways as the spirit moves them. Instead there's a highly choreographed schedule for the entire 24 hours. You have the candlelighting and so on that inaugurates Shabbat, then you have evening services, then you have an evening meal, and then it's traditional to sing a particular set of songs and tell a particular kind of folk story until fairly late into the night. When you wake up, there are several sets of morning prayers, followed by a quick snack, followed shortly thereafter by a larger lunch, followed by more songs from a relatively narrow list. At that point there are often as many as 2 whole hours of unscheduled time, followed by afternoon prayers, an afternoon meal, *more* singing, evening prayers, a closing ritual for ending the Sabbath with more candles, and then finally nighttime prayers. So out of the 24 hours in an Orthodox Sabbath, you might get 8 hours for sleeping, 2 hours of genuinely free time, and about 2 hours for bathing, dressing, and other personal needs. The rest is typically spoken for. If you're going to be useful to the community at all -- if you plan to help out at all with serving or clearing food, leading any of the prayers, shepherding people from one activity to the next or anything like that, then you often wind up spending your 2 hours of "free time" either rehearsing or cleaning or recruiting. Some people will also spend those 2 hours on quasi-academic study of traditional Jewish texts. It's pretty easy to show up at an Orthodox (or, for that matter, Conservative) Jewish Sabbath retreat, follow all of the rules and customs, and *still* feel like you were coping with somebody else's constant stream of demands.

    Unfortunately, flushing the rules and doing whatever you "want" all day is also no guarantee that you'll get out of demand headspace. I know more than one hedonist who organizes their weekend in terms of when it's time to be drunk, when it's time to be hungover, when it's time to wait in line at a trendy restaurant to eat a huge meal, when it's time to sit around moaning about how much you over-ate, when it's time to hit the gym to work off all those extra calories you just took in, and so on. Or you can throw a simple dinner party for friends and wind up consuming the weekend by being an anxious host, and spend 8 hours cleaning your house, 4 hours planning a menu, 8 hours cooking a meal, 2 hours getting dressed, 2 hours freaking out about the guest list and whether people will actually come, 2 hours re-arranging your Pandora stations, and so on. Or you can go to a music festival and rock out, and also be constantly checking your watch to see when it's time to go to the next act, because you're trying to cram 12 different bands into the same weekend. Or you can sit at home, and carefully resolve not to schedule anything for yourself, and get distracted by some fantasy novels and look around two days later and realize the weekend is over and that you don't actually feel all that rested or satisfied because you spent the whole weekend on escapism in a way that didn't fill your soul.

    My point is that relaxing properly is SURPRISINGLY HARD. There's an art to it. I feel like that art comes relatively easily to me, and I've practiced it extensively, and I'm kind of obsessed with it, and I still haven't come close to mastering it. The rules of Shabbat give you a pretty good toolbox that helps you shut off *some of* society's demands, but you shouldn't get too complacent about it. You're not safe from demands just because you're Shabbating. You still have to put conscious effort into maintaining a healthy balance between activity and inactivity, between carving out time for your highest recreational priorities and allowing yourself to live in the moment without nervously checking your watch. Accurately finding that balance is hard for most people. It's especially hard for me when I'm feeling busy/deprived, i.e., if I have worked a long or stressful week and I'm trying to make "the best use" out of the weekend because I'm trying to make up for psychic shortages that I suffered earlier in the week. If anyone has advice about how to be zen about the weekend when you're feeling bored and cranky and overworked, I would love to hear it.

    *Shabbat as an alarm system*

    Yes! Yes, this is a thing that works well. I never noticed this effect of Shabbat before, but it is definitely there. I wonder to what extent the alarm system works because it encourages people to put *any value at all* on things like living close to your community, having disposable income, and having disposable time. Like, I went to a pretty good high school. Nobody told us to live in a community. I went to a pretty good college. Nobody told us to live in a community. I've watched some pretty good Hollywood movies. None of them teach you to live in a community. At some point, someone or something probably has to prompt you to let you know that you're supposed to be in walking distance from your community. Before the invention of horses and bicycles and telegraphs, that prompting could come from just ordinary loneliness -- if you wanted to interact with people *at all*, you pretty much had to live close enough to them to walk over and say hello. But as we get better at manufacturing and distributing palliatives, it becomes less and less obvious that you're supposed to have a real-life community. So I wonder if part of Shabbat's value here is not precisely that it's an alarm in the sense of an early warning system, but just that Shabbat takes for granted the existence of certain kinds of old-timey resources that have dwindled to almost nothing in many modern people's lives.

    *Shabbat as hard mode*

    I'm not sure I understand this paragraph in your post. Inserting a human into each level of decision making sounds's the sort of thing I associate with wanting to applaud...but I don't understand what it has to do with Shabbat. You tune out of social pressure and social media, and so you hear your own voice more clearly? I guess that could work. I'm pretty sure that you had a good point here, and that I'm missing it.

    *Shabbat as non-consumerism*

    Also yes! I think it was Noam Chomsky who said that when you see entrenched interests permitting a vigorous debate between two policies, it's probably because both of those policies are mild variations on a common theme, and the vigorous debate over those variations serves to obscure the possibility of choosing an entirely different alternative. There is a vigorous debate about work-life balance in today's world. You could think of it as a debate waged between Germany (work) and France (consumption), or as a debate waged between New York (work) and Nashville (consumption). Should we work very hard at the office in order to maximize our income and prestige? Or should we limit working hours in order to free up time and energy for careful shopping that gives us plenty of time to purchase the highest-quality goods and services and then enjoy consuming those goods and services? This debate is modestly interesting, but once you start engaging in the debate, you forget that you've capitulated to the assumptions that you will (a) work for income, and (b) organize your leisure time around spending your income on goods and services. This assumption is so deeply entrenched in mainstream American culture that it's difficult to notice that it's even there. Some people reading this post will probably be staring at me like I'm some kind of moron right now, wondering, "What else would you spend your income on, besides goods and services?"

    And the point is that the entire principle of organizing your life around commerce is optional for everyone who's at least lower-middle-class. Like, yes, you probably have to do some commerce in order to survive. But instead of optimizing for the best possible commercial relationship to the world, you could optimize for something else. You could live to play the guitar. How much money can you spend on a guitar? You can get a nice guitar, a nice amp, and a lifetime's supply of strings for about $1,500. What the heck do you do with the rest of your earning potential? And there's nothing super-special about guitars. If you don't like guitars, you could organize your life around optimizing the time you spend with your family, or your friends, or your zen monastery, or your pet turtles, or your physics textbook, or your skydiving club. The whole damn country is obsessed with commerce, in the form of earning money, or spending money, or both -- but there are other conceivable goals. Shabbat forces you to acknowledge those possibilities every week.

    It's been a very long time since I've intentionally refrained from using money on Shabbat. I think I'm going to try that again!

    1. Benquo

      My point about human in the loop was basically that while you're trying to keep up, you're instantiating simpler-than-human-values processes that are automating large parts of society. You give a good example with managing tradeoffs between income & consumption - much simpler than the whole possibility-space.

      The thing is, we've each got only one brain to think with, & while it's serving as a cog it's not doing the full baseline human thing.

      This automation of human action *might* be a good thing (gains from trade can be very strong), but it's also good to bring your whole human-complete cognition online from time to time to see where you're going. Thus, a proper Sabbath puts one human-day in every seven-day action cycle.

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