Reclaiming Our Day of Rest

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

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
( 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
( It also
appeared in
Yes magazine (Fall 2003).

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