The Case for the Sabbath, Even if You're Not Religious

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When I underwent my prolonged upheaval from Orthodox Judaism, Sabbath observance was—perhaps predictably—one of the more momentous casualties. It took some time—you don't exit a religious lifestyle; you painstakingly dismantle it—but eventually, my Sabbath dwindled to nothingness.

Still, it's hard to shake a lifetime of sabbatarian habits, and I found myself missing the day of rest, even though I no longer believed it was divinely mandated. My religious trajectory went, roughly, from docility to bafflement to acrimony to nostalgia to, inevitably, longing.

But herein lies a theological stumper. Why—and how—would one keep the Sabbath if God has nothing to do with it? Without a well-formed rationale, efforts to have a day of rest would be invariably tepid and toothless. Nostalgia alone isn't nearly robust enough to sustain a weekly retreat from modernity.

Enter Judith Shulevitz's new book, The Sabbath World. The book is really two texts: a comprehensive historical, sociological, literary, anthropological, and even mystical examination of the Sabbath; and Shulevitz's chronicle of her own, often turbulent, path to Sabbath semi-observance. In this second part of the book, she offers an answer—or at least the material to assemble an answer—to the question, "Why celebrate and promote the Sabbath, even in secular form?"

Shulevitz herself isn't Orthodox—she doesn't believe in divine authorship of the Bible, for instance, or even God (at least in the traditional sense), and will break the Sabbath laws when pressed. (The spiritual vector of this book, it should be mentioned, is decidedly uni-directional: those seeking extra- or a-religious fulfillment from the Sabbath will take to it, but those already ensconced in Sabbath-observing complacency probably won't. There's an inescapable irony here. To the great bulk of Sabbath-observers, those most familiar with the Sabbath, The Sabbath will seem foreign, perhaps even heretical.) Nevertheless, Shulevitz strives towards full observance—and even feels a bit guilty when she falls short—and continually espouses its social, pragmatic, and spiritual utility.

Does society need a mandatory time-out? We have weekends and vacations, sure, but even those are increasingly bent toward structured pursuits. Our leisure is often as scheduled and hectic as our work—and is, consequently, just as stressful. Sabbath, with its myriad proscriptions, offers what might be the only authentic form of leisure: the act and fulfillment of doing absolutely nothing productive.

If that sounds like modern-day blasphemy, it's because it is. Shulevitz is critical of the capitalist mentality to promote unceasing productivity. Something is lost when time is reduced to a commodity; when time is merely exchangeable, in essence, for other goods and services. Without the "old structures and boundaries of times... you remove the brakes that slow down the perpetual motion machine of postindustrial capitalism."

We need, Shulevitz argues, to re-establish and recognize the qualitative aspect of time, not merely the quantitative. "The when of time... matters as much, if not more than, its how much." If time is uniform, then occasion is impossible.

But the Sabbath is more than a personal vacation day imbued with meaning. It's also our best bet to enact lasting communities. The Sabbath, properly deployed, "promotes social solidarity" according to Shulevitz, with a four-step solution to group cohesion. Work-time is limited. The designated day off is universally shared. The day off is as regular as possible, i.e., weekly. And the day in question is festive. A community with a day like that—a day like the Sabbath—is an actual community, a concept nearly extinct in the offline world.

Shulevitz isn't the first to put forward these arguments, but she is the most up to date. In a world defined by constant communication and accessibility (Blackberries and Twitter, however clichéd, probably deserve a mention here), where isolation is nigh impossible and meditation is looked at askance, a haven of time can be welcoming. Most have never experienced the bliss—which follows the acute agony—of being incommunicado.

But let's be real: a social Sabbath isn't going to be instated—even if Shulevitz thinks blue laws are "underrated"—and people are not, by and large, going to voluntarily disconnect from the grid. Is there, realistically, anything to be done?

Shulevitz thinks so, though she herself isn't sure what the solution might look like. "Neo-Sabbatarian laws," as she calls them, would be the product of a dedicated and thoughtful commitment. Limits on overwork, for starters, and concentrated attempts at coordinated social time. Disincentives for irregular work schedules. Enforcing the right of workers to refuse overtime without penalty. Laws like these aren't likely to be embraced in any market-driven culture, but nonetheless, they do start the conversation.

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Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania.

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