Reclaiming Our Day of Rest

Why we should keep the Sabbath

| January / February 2004

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.

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