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?