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?