I don’t work on Saturdays.
Okay, it would be more honest to say that I try not to work on Saturdays. From sundown on Friday night until sundown Saturday I don’t do e-mail, participate in meetings, or read anything that isn’t fun. I try very hard not to shop, although like any reasonably skilled Jew I am good at making fine distinctions. For instance, shopping for dental floss is not appropriate on the Sabbath. Sales at REI on the other hand clearly fall under the category of “recreation”. Generally speaking, I try not to do anything that in any way resembles what I do for a living, engaging instead in activities that are enjoyable and relaxing. Napping is high on this list, as well as bicycling.
I started down this road several years ago for no particular reason other than to see if I could do it. Maybe because I wasn’t raised an Orthodox Jew, it’s much harder than I thought. It’s not just because we live in a work obsessed culture, or that we have the tools to work all the time, anywhere. It would certainly be easier to observe the Sabbath in an all-Jewish community. Several years ago I happened to be on a kibbutz in the Negev on a Saturday. Just for the heck of it, I went to the Saturday morning service in their chapel. Afterwards, I was quite surprised to see that the lunch included an elaborate and complete display of hard liquors. It’s not too hard to refrain from labor when you spend the morning in the synagogue and then have a few shots of whiskey at lunch!
Observing the Sabbath is way, way high up on the list of things Jews are supposed to do. The Sabbath is considered the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar, even though it happens every week. (Maybe if we rebranded from “the Chosen People” to “the Folks Who Invented the Weekend” we’d have more converts?) Jews don’t get married (or buried) on Shabbat; Ilana and I were married after sundown on a Saturday in October, and then only after the short Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath was concluded. It is commandment number four out of ten, coming ahead of adultery, murder, and theft, and the seemingly simple commandment “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:10) has spawned an enormous literature of commentary and custom dwelling on what, exactly, one is and is not allowed to do.
In orthodox neighborhoods in Israel and Brooklyn, for example, the elevators are programmed to run up and down all day, stopping at all the floors, so no one has to do the “work” of pushing the button and summoning it. Likewise one can, and a non-Jewish friend of mine just did, buy a “Sabbath ready” refrigerator whose light stays on all day on Saturdays so opening the door doesn’t turn it on.
Generally speaking, “work” is considered to be anything that uses, creates, or transforms energy. So no cooking, driving, flying, lighting fires, and so on. Sex, on the other hand, is encouraged. “Marital relations, ” as it is delicately referred to in Jewish legal commentary, is a positive duty on the Sabbath. It’s good to have something to do outside of the synagogue!
The longer I have persisted in trying to observe the Sabbath, the more I’ve realized the wisdom and utility of the practice, regardless of why we do it. It’s really about stopping and looking around at everything that is wonderful around us, and reconnecting with what we each, individually, are, rather than what we do. When you meet someone new, what do you ask sooner or later? “What do you do?” Are we only what we do for a living? Are we not more? Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Sabbath we try to become attuned toholiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
Although I am more likely to understand the creation of the world through science than through God, the hummingbird and the redwood tree are no less miraculous and beautiful. I can’t appreciate them, or my family, or my friends, or my community, or much else until I put down my tools, take a deep breath, and relax.
Give it a try. You don’t have to be Jewish, and it doesn’t have to be Saturday. Pick one day a week (furlough Friday for us state workers?) and don’t work, whatever that means for you. Spend the day with your beloved, take a hike, do some yoga, build a sand castle, go fishing. Do whatever it takes to take your mind away from your to-do list and towards a deeper appreciation of the world around you and your place in it.
If that doesn’t work, you can always go shopping. The REI midwinter sale starts this Friday!