[In this post, we’re pleased to welcome guest posters Lynne Goldstein and Michelle Kassorla. Lynne is a Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Campus Archeology Program at Michigan State University. You’ll find her actively engaged on Twitter at @lynnegoldstein. Michelle is a Lecturer in the English Department at Clark Atlanta University. She blogs at http://drkblog.wordpress.com/ and can be found on Twitter at @drkassorla.]
At first glance, this post may seem to lie a bit outside of the normal ProfHacker purview, but once in awhile it’s good to pause to consider life as a whole. This post has its origin in a brief Twitter conversation in response to Tabita Green’s post at Lifehack. Though you’ll see similarities to some of what Ms. Green says in what follows, you’ll also find a variety of other reasons for keeping (or beginning to keep, or attempting to keep) sabbath. There is, however, one commonality running through the contributions below: all of us find sabbath intertwined with values that matter a great deal to us.
For a few years now, I’ve been drawn toward paying more attention to sabbath observance. Though my faith’s expectation of communal worship has always been an important part of my approach to the day, of late I’ve been trying to sort out for myself what more I might want to make a part of my observance. Going to Mass and brunch, calling my family, then jumping right back into ordinary work just hasn’t been cutting it for me. Something’s been missing.
What I’m really looking for is both a greater sense of connection and a greater awareness that, though my work is important (at least, I’d like to think so!), it isn’t so necessary that I can’t take one day away from it each week to enjoy life and to focus on the relationships and non-work activities that add greater meaning and depth to it.
To do that effectively, I think I need to step away from a number of my day-to-day activities on Sundays. I don’t expect that I can do that all at once, so I’m starting small: the computer stays off on Sundays, and my plan is to stay away from email and social media as well. For me, that’s neither an arbitrary rule nor a suggestion that the relationships I maintain in those venues aren’t real and important; they are, but social media can quickly become very distracting and very time-consuming for me. For one day each week, I want to step back from them, and instead devote that time to face-to-face relationships, leisure reading, and/or a good long walk or run.
I am a religious Jew, and celebrating the Sabbath (Shabbat) is central to my religion. During Shabbat, we are commanded to rest; and a violation of Shabbat, no matter how small, is considered to be a denial of the existence of G-d.
We celebrate Shabbat completely and absolutely, according to Jewish law. Shabbat starts about one hour before sundown on Friday, and extends to about one hour after sundown on Saturday.
There are a total of 39 forbidden activities on Shabbat, and the rules are so complex that volumes and volumes of heavy Jewish tomes have been dedicated to it. However, the simple answer for what it takes to celebrate Shabbat properly is this: we cannot be involved in any creative activity. We cannot do things such as cook, use a phone, light a fire (including using anything electric), ride in a car, garden, draw, write, sew, or carry anything (even a tissue in our pocket) outside a “private area” such as a house.
To us, the only thing more important than Shabbat is life itself. In fact, it is a Halacha (law) of Shabbat that we may not keep the other laws if life is in danger—for example, if we need to rush ourselves or someone else to the hospital.
It sounds pretty strict, and it is—but within the structure of Shabbat, I find freedom. For 25 hours a week, I cannot go on the internet, drive to a meeting, or write or grade a paper. There is nothing “more important” than spending time with my family–praying, eating, talking, reading, and playing with the kids.
Even when I attend a conference or a THATCamp, I keep Shabbat. On the face of it, many would regard attending a technology conference without one’s computer to be a waste of time. However, I have discovered that spending the day talking to others and really paying attention to what they are saying as they describe a project has allowed me to focus better than if I were following-along with my computer.
Shabbat is an amazing gift from G-d, a gift that I cherish more and more as I get older and my life becomes more and more technological. It’s a day away, a day dedicated to reflection and celebration of the gifts G-d has given us, and it keeps me balanced.
Rather than focusing on the religious aspect of sabbath observance, in my contribution, I have been thinking about the sabbath in a decidedly more secular way. For me, of late it has become important to take a few hours of each week to unplug: that means no internet, no computer, no smartphone, no iPod.
I have written elsewhere on ProfHacker about how important it is to me to stay active. See, for example, “Thank Goodness for Walking My Dog” and “The Rule of 200: Fitness Edition.” This summer, I have rediscovered my fondness for nature, or more specifically, I’ve had a chance to spend some time running on a trail not too far from home. This trail has been a terrific change of pace for me, not only because the unpaved surface is more gentle on my knees than the sidewalks and roads that I’ve grown accustomed to, but also because I decided early on that when I went there, I would leave the headphones and music at home. I made this decision in part for practical reasons: I wanted to be able to hear what was going on around me. Parts of the route are quite narrow, and the trail is used by runners, walkers (both with and without dogs), and mountain bikers (though there aren’t any mountains or even any significant hills), so it’s important to be able to hear people approaching from behind or those around the next bend. Also, while the trail isn’t especially technical, there are enough roots and rocks and other naturey-stuff that it’s important to concentrate on where you’re going and where best to place your feet. Trails, after all, are only easier on the knees when you don’t land on them.
I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy the other aspect of “unplugged” running–the stillness and the quiet save for cicadas chirping, the creek running, and the occasional breeze through the trees. Running on the roads, sidewalks, and bike-paths, as I usually do, is a very different experience. There, I’m surrounded by traffic, other people, and the occasional siren or car radio. Don’t get me wrong—I still enjoy it, but not a small amount of that enjoyment stems from the fact that I can listen to my favorite music. I find myself thinking through questions and situations, planning my week, reviewing upcoming events.
Getting into the woods on the other hand, and I’ll confess that my favorite time to do this is Sunday mornings when most people are at church, has become something else: a restorative experience. Maybe I have taken my Transcendentalist training a little too seriously of late, but I can’t help but think that Henry David Thoreau would have approved of my small weekly act of deliberate solitude. There, I try not to think about work or politics or the news; instead I focus on being present in the moment and appreciating where I am and what I’m doing. No matter what might be be going on at work or at home or elsewhere in the world, I try to remember how lucky I am to be able to run at all, even in the sweltering heat of the South Carolina summer.
Although I grew up in a Jewish home in which the concept of the Sabbath was an important one, I never really understood many of the benefits of Sabbath. As a kid, a day of rest was frustrating—there were too many things you could not do. As I grew older, I had increasing number of obligations and commitments impinging on a whole day of rest, and I often thought I did not have time to properly observe a day of rest. I often observed sabbath, but worried about things I had to do when it was over.
My first realization that the idea of a sabbath was an important one for health and wellbeing was during my freshman year in college. A young woman who was several years ahead of me possessed many of the qualities I wished I had. She was extremely smart, did well in school, was well liked by students and faculty, yet she was not a goody two-shoes. She was a strong, independent young woman who enjoyed life. Once I got to know her, I asked how she managed to be so successful, yet relatively relaxed (she was never as stressed as the rest of us). Her answer was simple: always take one day off each week and spend your time reading, relaxing and enjoying a break from normal activities. She did not always have Sabbath on the same day each week, but she was religious about taking one day off per week.
Even though this woman’s practice made a huge impression on me, I have not always been good about applying her methods and incorporating them into the sabbath I knew as a child. I do try to take one day a week off (usually Saturday), but I am not always successful at the relaxing part. I try to completely unplug for the day and recharge physically and emotionally, and when I am successful, I feel much better. I think the important take-away lesson is that the practice of observing a sabbath is very useful, and it is worth doing for both physical and mental health, as long as you don’t make yourself stressed trying to do it!
With a few exceptions, my wife and I (and now our daughter) have spent all our Sundays at church and with the people of the church. But in between these gatherings, I have usually mixed in writing a page here, correcting a handful of papers there. Perhaps others can manage this leavening better than I, but it has often led me to resent religion for intruding on work, and work for intruding on religion.
Just recently—in the past month—my wife and I have come to the conclusion that observing a Sabbath is a commandment, not just an option, even for us as Christians. Unlike some of the others who are writing for this post, for whom I have some “holy envy,” we are not heirs to a detailed tradition or even a clear idea about what it means to observe a sabbath. I’m not sure we can even call what we do observing the Sabbath. I’ve been reading diverse sources, from early Christian writings to Abraham Heschel, to gain a clearer idea. For now all we know is that from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, we refrain from acts of creation (as the Pentateuch commands) and try instead to do acts of mercy (as the Gospels give examples).
Our particular practice is obviously idiosyncratic (which irks me) and particular to our family (which brings me joy), and I certainly would not press it on anyone else’s conscience. So perhaps it would be more useful to explain the meaning we’ve found rather than the method we use.
We’ve undertaken observance of a sabbath not because we expect to be more productive on the other six days, or even in the first instance because we expect it to improve our wellbeing. Rather, we feel our consciences bound to observe the Sabbath in obedience to the God who commanded the Sabbath and Himself rested. Sanctifying one day to God is an acknowledgment that he is Lord of all seven days. Keeping one day holy regardless of the demands of our labor is a way of keeping the command to have no other gods before God.
Perhaps that seems austere and theological. But I can say from our short experience that observing a sabbath is indeed restful. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” meaning that the sabbath is God’s gift, which we’ve only recently come to receive.
Growing up in a religious family, I’ve had a concept of the Sabbath as a part of my life as long as I can remember. Some of what this meant is attending church services and not participating in certain activities–sports or shopping, for example. But it also meant spending time with my family or helping others who may need help in one way or another. Once I hit high school and found myself busy with both activities and a job on most evenings, Sunday suddenly became a very convenient day for homework. When else was I going to get it done?
At some point during college, I decided that I would extend my observance of a day of rest to include homework. It was a personal decision, and I’d say that it’s been one of the best that I’ve made in the last 15 years. No matter how much work I have (and like all of us, I frequently have too much), I’ve decided that I cannot and will not do it on my Sabbath. That means that I’ve sometimes got a lot to do to get ready to take this day “off,” but I’ve found my life to feel much more balanced and happy knowing that I have at least one day every week where I will get a break and can really focus on my family and other people.
One of the difficulties of academia is the fact that our job is never over. There’s always another article you could read, another 750 words you could write, or some papers you could grade. But if we tell ourselves that we can’t do these things on a certain day or that we won’t work after 5pm, then we buy ourselves a chance to get the rest we so seldom will take on our own.
Paradoxically, it takes some effort to take time off.
If you’re observing a strict religious sabbath, as my grandparents did, you have to plan your household cooking, chores, and other tasks so as not to interfere with that code. If you’re attending religious services, you have to plan for appropriate dress, travel time, and so forth.
If you’re creating a sabbath ritual for yourself, secular or spiritual, you need to figure out what counts—what your own guidelines are going to be for both what you will do and what you won’t do on your sabbath. And then you have to plan to make sure that you get your non-sabbath activities done beforehand so that you’re not tempted to give in and work through the day.
If your plan is to observe a sabbath on a flexible day, how will you make sure you observe it? How will you make it a priority so that it doesn’t get shifted aside under the pressure of deadlines, illness, or family obligations?
If you’re not used to taking a day off, it may be difficult at first. So as much effort as you put into thinking about what you won’t do on your sabbath, consider what you will do. How will you distinguish between the two? (If you don’t want to work on your sabbath, but you’re still checking email, how will you draw the line? If reading is an acceptable activity for your sabbath, will you make distinctions about what kind of reading material is appropriate?)
If a sabbath observance is new for you, it’s ok if you don’t do it “right” the first time. It’s ok if you don’t have it all figured out. Just pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work for you, given your personal reasons for observing.
The benefits of taking a day for personal renewal and reflection are tremendous. It’s worth the effort.
You, the readers:
What are your thoughts and experiences connected with sabbath? Does it play a role in your life? If so, what makes sense for you as you seek to make it part of your week? Let us know in the comments.