When I started to write this column, it was the fourth of five snow days in two weeks for Williamsburg/James City County’s schools — or, as my children mistakenly believed, week two of their second Winter Break!
This unexpected time off was a gift, giving us the opportunity to relax indoors and to enjoy winter activities that are rarely experienced in Virginia. We thought we had left snow days behind when we moved here, so this was a real treat, an opportunity for our young sons to experience the snow days we grew up with.
As someone who works six days a week, I was aware at times of the work that I wasn’t doing, although I also recognized that I couldn’t do much about it. If I couldn’t safely drive down my street, I certainly couldn’t drive to the synagogue! For better and for worse, we were limited in where we could go and what we could do — a sensation that reminded me of the Sabbath.
Sabbath is the English cognate for the Hebrew word, Shabbat, the Jewish name for the seventh day of the week. Every word in Hebrew is based on a root of three or four letters, which can be conjugated into many related words, the meanings of which are all somehow connected. The word Shabbat is based on the root shin-bet-tav, which means “to cease or rest”; conjugations of this root are used throughout Genesis 2:2-3, which describe God resting on the seventh day of creation after a very busy first six days.
The observance of Shabbat is the first Jewish ritual practice described in the Torah; it is, apparently, a fundamental part of the world that’s created there. Shabbat is, literally, a day for ceasing — it’s a time to put aside the everyday activities that occupy us throughout the rest of the week, for us to stop doing what we usually do and to simply allow the world to be as it is.
The famous 20th century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote an entire book on the subject, appropriately called “The Sabbath.” In it he says that, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.” We are blessed to have, every week, the sacred opportunity for this climax, a day to stop, look around, and experience and enjoy the world as it is.
In our hyper-connected, 24-7 society, where access to countless forms of electronic communication is often found in our pockets, the commandment to observe Shabbat every week seems both difficult and necessary. It is so tempting, and so easy, to answer, respond to, or read “just one more” email, Facebook post, or article — and to spend an entire afternoon doing just that.
This can be a fine way to spend time when it’s intentional, but the “just one more” moments with these media can easily swallow entire days of precious free time if we’re not careful. Weekly, legislated Shabbat is one great remedy for this — while traditional Jewish commentaries don’t speak about iPhones, the modern understanding that using electricity is a form of work has led me to turn off most electronic communication each week on Shabbat.
Equally valuable, I think, is that we remain open to other opportunities for Sabbath, other moments when it might be possible for us to put aside our occupations and to experience the world beyond our busy calendars and to-do lists. In Exodus 31:17, the Torah says that on the first Shabbat, God rested, and was refreshed.
In our extremely busy lives, may we all be open to unexpected opportunities for genuine rest and refreshment — whatever it takes to bring them about.