Sabbath: The Forgotten Pleasures of a Day of Rest

October 2, 2015    BY Helen Zelon

We work hard. We fill all our spare time. We stay connected, Facebooking and texting until our thumbs ache. Why has the commandment that asks of us simply, Do nothing, just Be, turned out to be the hardest one of all? Here’s help.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, a siren sounds twice every Friday evening, right around dusk. The first blast lasts a full minute; the second, 18 minutes later, about a minute again. It’s the Shabbat siren, from a neighboring community of rigorously observant Jews. The first siren is the warning—“18 Minutes! Get ready! Almost time to light candles!”—and the second, the “real” siren, marks sundown, when families set down the burdens of everyday life, light Shabbat candles, and gather for an evening meal. It’s the start of a 25-hour rest, broken the next evening when three stars speckle the sky—a deliberate withdrawal from the world of work and commerce, from business and busy-ness. It’s Shabbat.

Every week, we stop, yank ourselves out of the workaday world, and enter another sphere, of time and space and rest.

Even though my family isn’t stringently observant—we live in a multiculti world, with soccer games and professional lives and three kids all racing to adulthood—our lives follow the same aim-for-Friday arc. We settle in together on Friday evenings, light our candles, break bread, share wine, and eat a good meal. We open our table to friends and guests; we eat a little more than we should and have a few laughs. Every week, we stop, yank ourselves out of the workaday world, and enter another sphere, of time and space and rest.

The day of rest, called Shabbat by Jews or the Sabbath Day by Christians, may be formally decreed in the Ten Commandments. But as Dorothy Bass, a United Church of Christ minister and professor at Indiana’s Valparaiso University, once observed, the Sabbath is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the Decalogue—the unsung commandment that gets no respect.

For more than three thousand years—about as long, in fact, as Vedic meditation practice has been recorded—Jews have separated their weeks into ordinary and holy time, everyday and sacred. Christians, too, take part or all of a day (most often, Sunday) to avoid commerce and work, turning instead to family and worship. In the Muslim faith, Friday is the holy day; the Quran commands “all who believe” to “drop all business” to attend communal prayers. Different days, different faiths, but a shared core belief: Separating work from reflection, the mundane from the holy, honors the Creator, who took his or her own rest after six weary days of creation, and that act of separation—that break, or rest—enriches life and gives it meaning.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a longtime interpreter of traditional Jewish practice, imagines the day of rest as a rhythmic spiral, an ongoing tango between Doing and Being. It’s the tension between the two that gives life depth, Waskow teaches—the more you do, the more you welcome not-doing, and the more you rest (and not-do), the better able you are to make, to build, to work, to create—when the time for Doing is at hand.

Early in American history, the Sabbath Day became law, in accord with Puritan and (later) Protestant practice. For centuries, “blue” laws prohibited the sale of sin-inducing if wildly popular contraband like liquor and cigarettes, and most retail shops were closed. Even famously rational Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren upheld the idea that a secular day of rest was a public good; his 1961 opinion quoted Justice Harlan Field’s statement that “the general welfare is advanced, labor protected, and the moral and physical well-being of society [is] promoted.” Today, blue laws are largely history, and weekends mean errands, chores, sports, activities, classes, more errands, more chores, and—who can forget?—grocery shopping.

Yet some people are bucking the marketplace convention of buying and doing every day of the week—and stealing back a day for themselves, for their family, for gratitude and reflection. And why not adopt the practice of a day of rest? Many people crave it, says Krista Tippett, who should know. Tippett, a Yale Divinity School graduate and one-time Fulbright Scholar, now juggles an intensely demanding career as host of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith” (broadcast via NPR) and raising her two children, aged 8 and 12. [Editor's note: Krista Tippett's radio program and podcast is now called "On Being."]

“Many of us long for time that is set aside, time that is sanctified—away from all the pressures,” Tippett says. “One of the most important things we can give our children is the experience of silence.” Even though life with kids “makes weekends unwieldy, we have an assumption that our Sunday afternoons are given to quieter times,” she says. “And I have an aversion to having the TV on, answering the phone, or going shopping on Sundays.”

For me, Shabbat is something I can’t do without. I don’t know how I’d manage life’s pace without knowing Shabbat was coming—without the certainty that there will be quiet, and a good bowl of soup, a few laughs, and a few songs, too. I turn off my computer, and I don’t work; I empty my pockets of money and everything else, and for a night and a day, sing, pray, read, walk (and rest) unencumbered. With our crazy, nutty, wonderfully dense life, we carom through the weeks, connecting when and where we can. But on Shabbat, we’re home. We’re together. The world loosens its hold. And life’s very, very good.

I don’t know how I’d manage life’s pace without knowing Shabbat was coming.

Time Out of Time

Malcolm Netburn, founding partner of a media consulting group in New York and president of his progressive, transdenominational Pleasantville synagogue, says Shabbat is an island in time, a weekly respite from the hectic demands of professional life. It starts with this “inviolable rule”: Netburn always, always exits the office and is home on Friday before sunset. With the changes in the seasons, that can mean leaving at 3 p.m.—or at 7; no matter, if the sun’s dropping, he’s out.

Come sundown, with candles and evening services, Netburn sheds the pressures and obligations of work for the terrain of the spirit. “It’s very freeing for me,” he says. “It’s a day when things are just fine the way they are. You’re more than the sum of what you do and own, what people think about you, and even what you think about yourself. And it’s not new-agey, but ‘ancient-agey,’” he adds, a practice that has spun out with regularity for thousands of years.

Author, poet, and occasional preacher Kathleen Norris knows a thing or two about separating herself from the world, having lived for two years in a monastic abbey, a setting to which she often and happily returns. The monks begin Sabbath on Saturday night, she says, when the Gospel is read during evening prayers, complete with incense and singing. “Then, they sleep on it, basically, so that you hear the words again the next day”—on Sunday morning—“like old friends.” Norris, whose books The Cloister Walk and Dakota explore her personal spiritual evolution, grew up in a church-going, Sunday-supper family. Her early experiences of the Sabbath were as “a place in time where you could go and sing. There’s not anything else in the culture that allows that.” Now, she marks the day of rest by “avoiding anything with too much purpose.”

“I try to make it different” on Sunday afternoons after church. “It’s not for shopping or errands, but for reading, sharing time, or doing something special.”          

"It’s more than rest—it’s time to feed the soul.”

The traditional day of rest may be a break for most, but for those in the pulpit, it’s a workday, too. Reverend Nancy Palmer Jones, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, says she and her husband Kevin Smith, pastor of the Almaden Valley United Church of Christ (also in San Jose, Calif.), make their own Sabbath days, carving out weekdays to focus on life outside their demanding work. “We wrestle with the here and now,” Jones says. “The biggest struggle is creating a space for rest and reflection in our lives. It’s more than rest—it’s time to feed the soul.” My rabbi, Carie Carter, of the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, says that leading the community “is part of my prayer discipline; I’m grateful for the focus. But there’s always some time that I’m not ‘on,’ in the communal sense,” like a long walk after services, the quiet morning time before the community gathers, or the moments of candle-lighting at home. Both public service and private time are part of her Shabbat.

Even proud hedonist Andrei Codrescu, unofficial poet laureate of the city of New Orleans, yearns for Shabbat. Devoutly secular, committed to the pleasures of this world, Codrescu nonetheless follows the advice of an observant friend. “Try to take a whole day off to do nothing,” he counsels in an essay on the topic. “Don’t drive yourself where you don’t want to go, don’t drive yourself insane, don’t drive....give yourself slack...stay unfocused, unintentional, indeterminate. Let everything flow through you, like it’s water or wind...you’re only just a stick of flesh, holding on to your Sabbath.”

Ritual as a Framework for Meaning: Borrow, Transform, Create Your Own

The desire for a day of rest is all well and good. But how do you actually take that day, reclaim that time from the engine of commerce and work? And let’s be realistic, too: Not everyone can drop everything, even for a day, with a clear conscience and an easy heart. But anyone can start, an inch—or an hour—at a time. Incremental progress is still progress.

Stake Your Claim 
If a full day is impossible, find a morning that’s yours alone, or an hour that you can dedicate to stillness and rest. If you can’t swing one day a week, try for once a month; you may find yourself hungry soon for another break. Be patient, experiment. Don’t be afraid to say “this didn’t work,” and try something new. Every effort, from strict observance, borrowed interpretations or your own invention, has merit—and brings you closer to creating more space for Being, not Doing, for rest instead of activity, and for reflection instead of relentless, busy action.

Mark the Transition
Make your time of rest distinct with a formal transition from ordinary time to time apart. Lighting candles is a traditional practice. If time is scarce, give yourself the time the candles take to burn—two hours, maybe three—to reflect and be still. Adding scent with incense deepens the sensory texture; the perfume of no-time will lure you away from everyday life.

All traditions use melody—sung, chanted, or played—to move into holy time. You can, too, by adopting a traditional practice, or setting aside a particular piece of music that heralds your “down” time. Sing a little. And turn off the ambient electronics—TVs, radios, computers—and white noise. Don’t be afraid of silence.

Laugh
Stillness doesn’t mean mourning. Life deserves celebration as well as introspection; who’s to say that humor isn’t as holy as sorrow? Look for a light touch, whether it comes instinctively or not. Strive to see what’s good around you—from your child’s loose tooth to the cumulus clouds galumphing across the sky—instead of pointing out what needs fixing or improving. Take a break from the inner critic that’s so sharp-eyed and harsh. Ease is its own kind of prayer—and its own reward.

Life deserves celebration as well as introspection; who’s to say that humor isn’t as holy as sorrow?

Eat
Make a special meal, as simple or as elaborate as you desire. Prepare it with intent, as something that will honor and enrich your rest, and eat it slowly, with pleasure—and with family and friends, if you like. Many who mark the day of rest say that being in community is the highlight of the day; guests lucky enough to share your table will come away refreshed in more than appetite.

Breathe
Whether your practice includes formal meditation, simple introspection, prayer, or some combination, make time to reflect on the week that’s passed. In Jewish tradition, psalms for every weekday precede the prayers that herald Shabbat; it’s an automatic review of the week that was, and an open-hearted welcome for the rest that lies ahead.

Ignatius, the father of the Jesuits, created what’s known as the Daily Examen, a kind of inner inventory that asks, “During what moments did I feel most alive? For what moments am I most grateful?” Borrow this practice to discover what most pleases you, and (perhaps) recognize some undersung happiness in your daily life.

Divest
Worried? Anxious? Pressured at work? Join the club. The good news is that all your cares can wait a day—the world won’t stop turning if you take a break and consciously, deliberately, put your concerns out of mind. The better news is that you will return to them invigorated, with more creative energy.

Move
Get out of your head and into nature; take a walk. And that doesn’t mean hike, or power-walk, or anything else designed to boost your cardio strength and muscle density. Move gently through your yoga practice, with greater ease. Be generous to yourself; the idea is to see where you are, feel your body in space, and simply slow down.

Break the Spell
Don’t let your rest fizzle into a “regular” day—break it, when the time is up. Don’t blur the boundary between the time of Doing and the time of Being; they’re separate, and the more you reinforce the separation, the more you can give yourself to Being when that time is at hand.

For one day, we stop ‘messing around’ with Nature and allow the world to happen.”

Commit
There will be weeks when the demands of work or life will seem too great to set aside. These are the times you can remind yourself of the promise you made to renew and replenish by doing nothing. The key, Rabbi Carter explains, “is that it happens whether you want it to or not. I can be completely inundated—how can I bear to stop?—but this is what I have to do. I have to stop. For one day, we stop ‘messing around’ with Nature and allow the world to happen.”

It seems so slight, a day of rest, but it isn’t without impact. Codrescu puts it this way, “If for one day a week every creature looked after itself without worrying about anything else, creation would become instantly self-evident, and there’d be no need to fix everything.” In other words, peace. Contentment. A tranquil moment in a sea of activity. Not a small achievement at all. 

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Yoga International.

Helen Zelon
Helen Zelon writes about urban life, education, and culture for national magazines.