My understanding of the significance of Sabbath opened slowly like a rose to reveal a more complicated and alluring beauty than I had imagined.
We humans think we are in charge of our worlds. We organize, create, build, and sweep up as if we are running the show. Sabbath is about giving up this control, acknowledging we aren’t the bosses by surrendering for a day the drive to alter the world in any way. At the same time, it’s a celebration of being. It speaks to the fundamental struggles of the Jews. For a people with a history of being slaves, this day of is a powerful statement of freedom. Slaves can’t decide when they’ll work and when they won’t. Sabbath is an exercise of free will. The fact that Sabbath can be practiced anywhere is vital for a people who spent generations on the move. Unlike temples made of stone, temples built in time are yours no matter where you are. Far from just the Jewish day of worship, when Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays, it is the Sabbath itself they are celebrating.
Yet, I wasn’t surprised to learn that even the most observant use creative loopholes such as lights on timers and slow cookers set on Friday morning. Some also have low-tech solutions. One man I met at Saturday worship services told me that growing up as an Orthodox Jew his favorite Sabbath activity was playing Scrabble with his siblings. To keep score, they would fold pages of a book, a dog-ear for each point. “It’s not writing!” he said when I narrowed my gaze at him. I wasn’t too shocked to find out he was a lawyer.
It took a while, but eventually I was able to pull my attention away from the activities that are not allowed on Sabbath to those that are encouraged. What’s a Jew to do? Say her prayers and go to synagogue—of course. Other than that: read for pleasure, tell stories, play games that don’t involve writing, nap, eat food that’s been prepared in advance, kick back in a hammock, daydream, take a walk around the neighborhood, eat some more, nap again, contemplate the beauty of creation, be grateful to have one day every week when hustle of normal life is set aside.
The idea of a weekly block of time free from work is a notion that much of the world has embraced, religious and secular alike. The weekend has become so central to how we experience time that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Yet, the original intent has been turned inside out: we use our weekends to prepare for the work week—not vice versa. Laundry, groceries, cleaning—Saturday and even Sunday are opportunities to get chores done so that come Monday we can focus on our jobs or school or whatever it is we really do. Even the most observant Christian family does not use Sundays to officially suspend the daily grind. Meals will be cooked and cleaned up after, laundry will be washed and folded, errands run. Special “family time” may be carved out, but no radical existential statements underlie the day. The Sabbath may have been a potent gift to the world, but we’ve been running with it so long and so hard that not only has the contents dropped out along the way, we’ve forgotten what was ever in the box.