Why we should keep the Sabbath
Several years ago, I went to a folk music festival in Philadelphia. Many of the singers sang labor songs of the 1930s, civil rights songs of the 1960s, and peace songs of many decades. The audience sang along, nostalgia strong in the air. Then Charlie King began singing a song with the refrain, 'What ever happened to the eight-hour day? When did they take it away? . . . When did we give it away?'
Then the audience roared with passion, not nostalgia. This was about our own lives, not something from the past. I was startled. Suddenly I saw that my own feelings of hyperoverwork, of teetering on the edge of burnout, were not mine alone. And suddenly I saw that everything I had learned about the joys of Sabbath were not just for lighting Jewish candles at the dinner table and chanting Torah in the synagogue.
I began to talk with others, especially with scholars who have studied overwork as a growing problem in American society and people whose religious and spiritual traditions call for time to reflect, to be calm, to refrain from doing and making in order to be and to love. Out of those discussions came an effort that brought Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians, and spiritually rooted 'secular' intellectuals together to address the deep human needs for rest and reflection -- and for family, community, the Spirit. By freeing time, we thought, we could help free people. This was about not just the ancient practice of the Sabbath, but also new ways of pausing from overwork and overstress in an industrial/informational economy.
For all the religious traditions that take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously, there is a teaching we call Shabbat. The word, usually translated into English as Sabbath, comes from the Hebrew verb for pausing or ceasing. In Exodus 20:8-11, the reason given for the Sabbath is to recall Creation; in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, it is to free all of us from slavery. And we are taught not only the seventh-day Shabbat: There are also the seventh year (still present in our time in the form of the sabbatical) and the seven-times-seven-plus-one year (the 50th year or Jubilee).
In the seventh year, the land must be allowed to catch its breath and rest, to make a Shabbat for God, the Breath of Life. Since nearly everyone in ancient Israel was a shepherd or a farmer, this meant that almost the whole society rested. Since no one was giving orders and no one was obeying them, hierarchies of bosses and workers vanished. In this yearlong Shabbat, even debt -- a form of stored-up hierarchy -- was annulled. Those who had been forced to borrow money because of poverty were released from the need to repay; those who had been pressed into lending their wealth were released from the need to collect.
In the 50th year, the land was not worked so it could breathe freely once again. All land was redistributed in equally productive shares, clan by clan, as it had originally been held (Leviticus 25 and 26: 34-35, 43-45; Deuteronomy 15: 1-18). These yearlong Jubilee observances that the Bible calls shabbat shabbaton ('Sabbath to the Sabbatical power' or 'deeply restful rest') are times for enacting social justice and freeing the earth from human exploitation. They are times of release from attachments and habits, addictions and idolatries.
Indeed, in these socially revolutionary passages of Torah, the text never uses the word tzedek -- justice -- but instead the words shmitah and dror, which mean 'release,' what Buddhists today call nonattachment. The deepest root of social justice, according to these biblical passages, is the profoundly restful experience of abandoning control over others and over the earth. The tradition of Shabbat does not teach that restfulness and utter nonattachment is the only worthy path to walk. Rather, the tradition is rooted in an earthy sense of sacred work as well as sacred rest. Indeed, the tradition teaches a rhythm, a spiral of doing and being in which the next stage of doing is always higher and deeper, because a time of being has preceded it. According to Evan Eisenberg's book The Ecology of Eden, this rhythm of Shabbat may have emerged from an effort of Western Semitic communities to cope with the emergence of monocrop agriculture in the Sumerian empire. Semitic small farmers, shepherds, and nomads had to face the new high-efficiency agriculture, which brought with it population growth, ownership, and armies.
The question was, what should the communities of Canaan do? They could ignore the new efficiency -- and go under. They could imitate it -- and see their culture disappear. Or they could learn what was valuable -- and godly -- within it, and absorb that into their own lives in ways that kept their culture both sacred and distinctive.
So one year out of every seven, they pretended to become hunters and gatherers again. They would eat only what grew freely from uncultivated land. They re-affirmed their age-old teaching that God alone, and no human being, owned the land. They came through this profound challenge to their sacred life path changed -- but they were still intact as a people whose Sabbatical restfulness was the sign of their covenant with God.
In the past century, all traditional communities on Planet Earth have been living through an analogous crisis. The great leap in economic efficiency and military mastery that came with modernity played the same role in shattering the ways of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism that Sumerian efficiency and power played in the ancient Semitic communities.
Thus it is not surprising that just as we realize the extent of today's new Global Gobble of human communities and of the earth itself -- from the Nazi Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and sweatshops to the burning of the Amazon basin, the privatization of water supplies, and global warming -- the need for rest, reflection, and calm comes back into our consciousness.
In 1951, in the aftermath of those grotesque mockeries of creation -- the Holocaust and Hiroshima -- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who later marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. against racism and the Vietnam War) wrote in his book The Sabbath: 'To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money . . . on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol . . . a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature -- is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity's] progress than the Sabbath?'
Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs the Shalom Center (www.shalomctr.org) in Philadelphia. He is one of the pioneers of the Jewish Renewal movement, which seeks to bring traditional Jewish spirituality into relationship with contemporary currents such as feminism and environmentalism. This article is excerpted from Take Back Your Time (Berrett-Koehler, 2003), a collection of essays on the political, cultural, and spiritual impact of overbusy lives, edited by John de Graaf (www.timeday.org). It also appeared in Yes magazine (Fall 2003).