The Secular Case For A Biblical Sabbath
“It was Grandfather’s [watch], and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire … I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” This passage from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury felt bashert as I read it in a park on Saturday, unaware of the hour and carrying only the book in my hands and clothes on my back.
I eased off the bounds of weekdays’ doing and basked in a restful day of being. I bathed in the Sabbath, my new favorite weekly ritual, a 24-hour realm of spiritual bliss through timelessness.
I grew up in a Reform Jewish family whose relationship to religion was more social than spiritual. We attended Friday night service on occasion at our local synagogue, but I had never experienced a formal day of Shabbat (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), the weekly holiday of God’s rest on the seventh day after six days’ work of creating the world.
A few months ago, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s lyrical essay ‘The Sabbath’ and – as a former architecture student who envied the divine craftsmanship of other faiths’ ancient mosques, churches and monasteries – I was struck by Heschel’s notion that Judaism is a religion of holy days rather than holy places, and observing the Sabbath is like walking through the holiest “cathedral of time.” I tried Shabbat for several weekends and, in confluence with my weeknight Zen meditation practice, the tradition I overlooked from my own ancestry slowly became my dearest ritual.
Just as Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted Buddhist meditation into secular mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and Dean Ornish advocated yoga as a secular physical practice, I believe Shabbat can likewise (with humble appreciation of cultural origins) facilitate profound spiritual growth for people of all faiths and secularities.
A few organizations like the Sabbath Manifesto, National Day of Unplugging, and Shmita Project have begun to provide some resources for how to slow down and realize we have “enough” when we seek less rather than more. Surely the Sabbath may lose some sacredness if separated from Judaism (or the Seventh-day Adventist Church), but I posit that, like yoga and meditation, its potential benefits are too great for the fast-paced and over-stimulated condition of our contemporary culture to fear offense of cultural appropriation.
The most observant Jewish communities abide by a strict series of Sabbath laws, like remaining within an eruv (an enclosure marked by a high wire that limits where people can carry certain objects outside their homes); refraining from turning light switches, ripping toilet paper, playing instruments and cooking food; and walking to synagogue for morning service, just to name a few. Learning and then following all the Sabbath laws – as well as gathering with friends and family for the simple joys of song, prayer, and community – can enrich our weekends with intention, but full abidance can prove difficult if we live in a secular neighborhood.
In my personal practice, I express deference to Shabbat’s traditions and then adapt them to my lifestyle and sensibilities by following just a few core rules. I do not spend money, use digital technology (I turn off my phone and laptop before Friday sunset), look at clocks nor know the time, make previous plans for the day, and I can only travel by foot (restriction from clocks and previous plans is my own reform, not tradition).
My principles may resemble penance, but like the Orthodox Shabbat laws, each prohibition is actually liberation: Abstention from money reveals an abundance of “the best things in life [that] are free.” Abstention from technology reveals an abundance of be-here-nowness. Abstention from clocks reveals an abundance of free-flowing time. Abstention from plans reveals an abundance of serendipity. Abstention from vehicles reveals an abundance of beauty as I stroll and see the world at an unhurried human pace.
For many people, Shabbat is only sacred if we firmly heed its laws; in my practice, however, the rules are flexible insofar as they build more meaningful space in our architectures of time. I once rode my bike, but for the joy of a wandering ride to nowhere in particular, not to arrive somewhere faster. I once spent money, but for a special baker’s lemon tart that a friend and I savored bite-by-bite while chatting for an hour, maybe two or even three.
A spiritual teacher once told me that he wakes up a little before 6 a.m., makes tea, and drinks it in his chair for about an hour. If the cat walks in he pets it, if someone rings the door he answers it, and if the tea spills he cleans it, but otherwise he does nothing. His practice is not meditation, but just as one’s obscured yet most essential thoughts arise only once you focus on breath and quiet your mind, his objectless morning ritual clarifies life’s immediate necessities.
Though Shabbat is an entire day of doing nothing, I become my most compassionate rather than my most idle self. I realized that I make the most selfish decisions on my busiest days, when I am under the illusion that I must do something at every moment, when altruism feels like an obligation instead of a responsibility, when a house chore steals precious time from tasks I “need” to accomplish before day’s end. Without time or plans, however, I have no priorities in the way and thus can no longer put off sweeping the kitchen floor, apologizing to a friend, and helping my neighbor move her couch. Perhaps Jesus had a similar insight when he committed the infamous dissent of healing a man on the Sabbath.
Jewish or Gentile, rigid or fluid, as a boisterous Friday night dinner or solo Saturday retreat — the practice of Shabbat can offer an accessible gift of spiritual transformation. As we strive daily to fix our inherently broken world in quests for idols and deceptive messiahs, perhaps Shabbat is a true and accessible utopia, neither a perfect nation nor era of peace, but a weekly consciousness that sees infinite gratitude for what really matters in our finite lives.
Ethan Blake is a writer, musician, educator and activist based on the West Coast. He is currently editing his first book of essays, “When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Bicycle.”