Can Shabbat create a better, healthier world?
And is it time for Jews to "export" their holy Sabbath, similar to yoga and its Buddhist origins?
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“As we keep or break the Sabbath Day, we nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope by which man rises.” — Abraham Lincoln
In 2015, while traveling to Israel with dozens of young tech professionals, Meghan Holzhauer fell in love with Shabbat.
“No matter who you are or what you believe, there’s no denying the holiness of this place,” she wrote on Instagram. “I had the great honor of spending a magical Shabbat at Jerusalem’s Western Wall with 80 of the most incredible, inspiring people I’ve encountered in this life. Dancing, singing, embracing and feeling immense love. This memory will stay with me forever and I am forever changed.”
In 2016, Holzhauer returned to Israel, solidifying what she called her “Jew-ish status with a full moon Shabbat Seder in Tel Aviv on the shore of the Mediterranean. The richest of storytelling and friend-family love in celebration of freedom and miracles.”
Then, in March 2017, Holzhauer took 40 young professionals to Mexico City, where they enjoyed a multicultural Shabbat dinner. And shortly thereafter, she organized a hip-hop Shabbat for 400 people attending a social justice conference in Atlanta.1
“A lot of Jewish rituals are about honoring friends and family,” Holzhauer said. “You feel part of something bigger.”2
Now, here’s the catch: Holzhauer is not Jewish. She was raised “Christian-light” by non-practicing parents, and apparently has no interest in converting. As she explains it, a non-Jew finding inspiration in the Sabbath — or traveling to Israel for that matter — isn’t so different from the millions of non-Buddhists who practice yoga or go on meditation retreats, saying:
“It’s the latest way that ancient traditions are meeting modern life.”
Daniel Ben-Tzi, who founded the annual City of Los Angeles Mediation Awareness Week, concurs: “Judaism’s ancient treasure of Shabbat can be mined the way Hindu and Buddhist treasures have been mined to gift to the west yoga, meditation and mindfulness.”3
As Ben-Tzi pointed out, every year more people use time-honored methods to increase health, awareness, and inner peace — practices which aren’t necessarily embraced with regard for religious beliefs.
“One doing yoga stretches need not believe in karma or rebirth to benefit,” he said. “So too with meditation and mindfulness. Their popularity is booming because it works.”
Rabbi Myriam Klotz, a Senior Program Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, leads Jewish yoga retreats nationally. She said practicing Shabbat “is like experiencing a deeply renewing yoga posture … which helps us open to the love that lies deep inside us.”4
Is it any surprise, then, that a recent survey of the happiest population among Jews in Israel happens to be the devoutly Shabbat-observing ultra-Orthodox?5 And that Israel, the Jewish state, ranks as the ninth-happiest country across the world?6
Perhaps more importantly, could more Jews and non-Jews adopting their own practice of Shabbat lead to more fulfilling lives and, ultimately, a better, healthier world?
“If there ever was a moment when Shabbat was poised to become the new yoga practice,” Jennifer Miller wrote in Bloomberg, “it’s now.”7
Ben-Tzi believes the same: “The time is ripe to universalize ancient, effective and enriching practices of Shabbat.”
A Brief History of Shabbat
“More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” — Ahad Ha’am
For thousands of years, Shabbat as a day of rest has been practiced by Jews from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“Rest has an expansive definition in Judaism, focusing one’s attention on nature and what humanity has not created,” Ben-Tzi said. “Rest involves refraining from taking actions that override nature. Lighting a fire has traditionally been avoided on Shabbat because it’s humanity’s creation of light.”
Despite Shabbat’s incessant celebrity in Jewish life, the Torah provides few details about it. Apart from the oft-repeated injunction to “do no work” on Shabbat in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the only other specifics mentioned are a few prohibitions such as those against kindling a fire, gathering wood, and plowing.
Legend has it that, nearly 40 centuries ago, Abraham and Sarah embarked on a journey to bring monotheistic ideas and morals to a predominantly pagan world. Their journey took them from their native Ur Casdim to Charan (Mesopotamia), and from there to Canaan, where they settled first in Hebron and later in Beersheba. They pitched their tents at the desert crossroads, and offered food, drink, and lodging to all wayfarers of every tribe and creed. Wherever they went, they taught their truth about One God, creator of heaven and Earth.8
In Sarah’s tent, a special miracle proclaimed that the Divine Presence dwelled therein: The lamp she lit every Friday evening, in honor of the divine day of rest, miraculously kept burning all week, until the following Friday eve. When Sarah died (1676 BCE), the miracle of her Shabbat lamp ceased. But on the day of Sarah’s passing, Rebecca was born. And when Rebecca was brought to Sarah’s tent as the destined wife of Sarah’s son, Isaac, the miracle of the lamp returned. Once again, the light of Shabbat filled the matriarch of Israel’s tent and radiated its holiness to the entire week.9
Sarah and Rebecca’s descendants ended up in Egypt, slaves of a cruel king. Moses, their destined leader, was rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, and then raised in the royal palace. According to the Midrash, Jewish literature that interprets and elaborates upon biblical texts, mostly compiled from the fifth century CE through the medieval period:
“Moses saw that they had no rest, so he went to Pharaoh and said: ‘If one has a slave and he does not give him rest one day in the week, the slave will die. These are your slaves — if you do not give them one day a week, they will die.’ Said Pharaoh: ‘Go and do with them as you say.’ So Moses ordained for them the Shabbat day for rest.”10
Shortly thereafter, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and empowered him to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt. After ten plagues and much nudging, Pharaoh finally let them go. They crossed the (miraculously split) Sea of Reeds, and arrived to Marah. There, God gave them statutes and laws — including the commandment to observe Shabbat.11
A month after the Exodus, in 1313 BCE, the matzah that the Children of Israel took with them from Egypt was depleted. For the next 40 years, the Israelites were sustained by the manna, the miraculous edible substance that fell each day from heaven during the 40-year period between the Exodus and the conquest of Israel, providing Jewish ancestors with sustenance throughout their travels in the desert. The manna came each day, providing precise needs, except on Fridays.
“It came to pass on the sixth day that they gathered a double portion of bread, two omers for each one. The leaders of the community came and reported it to Moses. And [Moses] said to them: ‘That is what God has said: Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Shabbat to God. Bake whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest leave over to keep until morning.’ So they left it over until morning … And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat to God; today you will not find it in the field.’”12
“‘See, God has given you the Shabbat. Therefore, on the sixth day, He gives you bread for two days. Let each man remain in his place; let no man leave his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day.”13
Today, Jews place two challah loaves on the Shabbat table and cover them with a cloth, to represent the dew-covered double portion of manna that came down from heaven in honor of Shabbat.
But let’s go back to 1313 BCE, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, which formed the Torah’s core. The fourth commandment concerns Shabbat:
“Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor. But the seventh day is a Shabbat to the Lord your God; you shall do no work — neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your sojourner who is in your cities. For [in] six days God made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it.”14
Four months after the revelation at Mount Sinai came the request from God, “They shall make for me a Sanctuary (the Tabernacle), and I shall dwell amidst them,” accompanied by detailed instructions as to how this sanctuary should be constructed. In the Mishnah, the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions, God’s detailed instructions to Moses for making the Tabernacle include 39 melachot — categories of creative labor — which form the basis and core of the laws of Shabbat rest.
To convey God’s instructions regarding construction of the Tabernacle and the observance of Shabbat, “Moses gathered together the entire community of the Children of Israel.” In doing so, “Moses instituted for all generations that Jews should gather in their synagogues to read from the Torah on Shabbat”15 — as Jews throughout the world do to this day.
The annual Shabbat Torah reading cycle is more than a weekly lesson; it’s how Jews “live with the times” according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi — finding in the current week’s Torah portion direction and inspiration for events and actions within our modern lives.
In or around the sixth century BCE, it is said that Jews introduced to the world what became the weekend as we know it. Having a fixed day of rest was most likely first practiced in Judaism, wrote Eviatar Zerubavel in his book, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week.
“I remind everybody that the Sabbath was the Jewish gift to civilization,” Edgar Bronfman, Sr. said.
But when the Syrian-Greeks ruled the Holy Land circa 142 BCE, they forbade Shabbat observance. Many Jews fled to live in the caves of the Judean hills so they could keep their day of rest. Some were found out and killed. Finally, the Jews revolted and fought to keep their heritage, their lifestyle. We celebrate their miraculous victory to this day with the festival of Chanukah.16
After 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the ancient rabbis worked intensively to adapt biblical traditions and teachings to the reality of Jewish religious life in the absence of a sacred center. In the process, they created the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, which serves as the basis of modern Jewish life. One of the major thrusts of the rabbinic enterprise was establishing rules for observance of the Shabbat, putting their own stamp on existing popular tradition.17
The rabbis also translated into concrete liturgical acts the Torah’s positive admonitions to “remember” and “keep” the Sabbath “[in order] to sanctify it.” Thus the rabbis created the ritual of kiddush (“sanctification”), a special blessing usually said over wine, as well as an elaborate Shabbat liturgy to be the required active content of Shabbat observance, alongside the prohibition of labor.
During the Middle Ages, authorities in Jewish law adapted (and often extended) Shabbat prohibitions to meet changing social realities and technologies, while the poets among their contemporaries created elaborate, decorative additions to the liturgy of Shabbat and table-songs to be sung at Shabbat meals. The mystics of those centuries offered a new understanding of Shabbat, portrayed as queen and as bride to be welcomed, feted, and escorted away at her departure.
In the decades that concluded the nineteenth century and commenced the twentieth, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the pogroms, persecutions, and crushing poverty of Eastern Europe in search of a better life in the United States, which today houses the second-largest Jewish population after Israel. But the “New World” offered its opportunities at a steep spiritual price. Shabbat was still a regular workday in the United States; “blue laws” forbade the opening of businesses on Sunday; and the “melting pot” credo preached the abandonment of “non-American” religions and cultures.
“A primary casualty was the Shabbat,” said Yanki Tauber, a writer and editor for the Jewish website, Chabad.org. “Many Jews felt that they could not earn a living in the U.S. without working on Shabbat; others saw it as a hindrance to the dream of assimilation within, and acceptance by, American society. The Jews’ thousands-year-long tenacious hold on Shabbat was slipping.”18
In 1908, the first five-day workweek in the United States was instituted by a New England cotton mill, so that Jewish workers didn’t need to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.19
And in the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish labor leaders across the country campaigned for a five-day workweek. Rallies were held in support of Shabbat observance; consumer groups pledged to support businesses which observed Shabbat; Shomer Shabbat (“Shabbat Observant”) signs were displayed in shop windows; and Shabbat clubs were created for Jewish children.
“Shabbat is a day of rest, of mental scrutiny, and of balance,” the legendary Jewish poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik, wrote. “Without it, the workdays are insipid.”
In 1948, the year in which the State of Israel was established, the Israeli government passed a law declaring Shabbat the official day of rest. This meant that, in most localities, commercial businesses were ordered to be closed, public transportation did not operate on Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown), and government agencies and government-controlled corporations were officially Shabbat-observant. Those who did not abide by these laws received fines. In many places across Israel today, this remains the case.
In 1974, the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a worldwide Shabbat Candles campaign to encourage Jewish women and girls to bring the light of Shabbat into their home by fulfilling the mitzvah (“good deed”) of lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evening, 18 minutes before sunset. In particular, the Rebbe campaigned to restore the age-old custom (dating back to the matriarch Rebecca) that young girls, too, should light their own candles. In a time of increasing darkness, the Rebbe declared, we must respond with an increasing of light.20
“… We shouldn’t run scared from the ecclesiastical associations that cling to the Sabbath like earth to roots,” Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World, wrote. “Religion is the source of most forms of transcendence in our mostly very mundane lives, whether or not we now pray or believe. Religion has given us storytelling, poetry, music, art, and theater; it has occasioned the founding of universities; it has been responsible for great advances in architecture. There’s no reason not to let religion lend us one of its most powerful social ideas — the Sabbath — as well.”21
Nowadays, there are a variety of organizations trying to push people — primarily Jews — toward engaging with the principles of Shabbat, using some of the same language of personal wellbeing that helped propel yoga to cultural dominance. Among them is OneTable, which has an app that helps connect people with Shabbat dinners. It also offers “nourishment credits” to pay for bringing in food. Potential dinner hosts can meet with a designated Shabbat coach skilled at helping “elevate your dinner party to a Shabbat dinner experience.”22
Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies offers TableMakers, which encourages community builders to curate, organize, and host Shabbat dinner experiences for their peers. And there’s also Arq, which founder Danya Shults describes as “a lifestyle brand and media company inspired by Jewish culture and open to all.” The company evolved, in part, out of Pop-Up Shabbat — a seasonal, Jewishly sourced, pop-up dinner series — that Shults ran in New York.23
Finally, the organization Reboot, which prides itself on creating unconventional Jewish programming, developed an iPhone application designed to help people disconnect and unwind on Friday afternoons. The organization has a simple, ten-principle Sabbath Manifesto that’s “designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world” by giving people a “provisional guide to observing a weekly day of rest.” (Manifesto principles include “Avoid technology,” “Get outside,” and “Drink wine.”)24
“A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.” — Henry Ward Beecher
Shabbat observance, as we’ve seen, has taken on different forms according to evolving customs and various ideological outlooks, a symbolism of evolution and transformation not uncommon throughout Judaism’s marvelous history. On the basis of references to Shabbat observance among the works of non-Jewish authors in Greek and Latin, some scholars have suggested that the Talmudic rabbis were deliberately reforming an earlier, more somber Sabbath observance among Jews in the Hellenistic world, reinterpreting Torah in new ways in order to shape a joyous, active Shabbat experience.
I would argue that making Shabbat a more joyous, active experience for more people around the world — both Jewish and non-Jewish — will bring tremendous personal and interpersonal value to these people. This, in turn, is sure to positively reflect on Shabbat’s founders — Judaism and the Jewish People — which will do wonders for the so-called fight against antisemitism, strengthening Jewish communities’ relationships with the greater world, and other issues important to a thriving Jewish future.
“Shabbat is a gift for all living creatures, humans and animals, Jews and non-Jews,” Zack Bodner wrote in his book, Why Do Jewish? “In a world that doesn’t stop moving, it is permission to stop. In this moment when we are charging ahead, Shabbat is our license to catch our breath.”
In this way, Shabbat is quite similar to yoga and meditation, which are now employed around the world to the delight of millions (billions?) of mostly non-Buddhists. Unlike yoga and meditation, however, Shabbat is difficult to commodify, as Michael Schulson stipulated in a Religion Dispatches article.
“Certainly, it’s easy to imagine how a slightly exotic practice of mandated rest could, in the right hands, become an interfaith wellness touchstone: feel good through this ancient spiritual wisdom!” Schulson wrote. “Still, it’s worth asking what gets lost when Shabbat is framed as a lifestyle choice. The practice exists in the context of a rich, sometimes arcane, set of ritual practices, communal obligations, legal traditions, and philosophical arguments. For Jewish communities of all kinds and levels of observance, part of practice is reckoning with that (often inconvenient) context.”25
This is to say: Even when given a modern makeover, Shabbat traditions “can be harnessed toward more radical ends,” Schulson wrote. For instance, the great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, explicitly presented Shabbat as a critique of industrial civilization, and his writings about Shabbat practice chafe against modern notions of time, ownership, and labor.
“Six days a week we seek to dominate the world,” Heschel said. “On the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
Another high-profile rabbi, Abba Hillel Silver, went further, framing Shabbat as a model for resistance against the excesses of a consumption-driven culture.
“Of course, these issues haven’t gone away,” Schulson wrote. “Questions of time, labor, and standardization are more relevant than ever.”
A Long List of Science in Support of Shabbat
“The Sabbath-day is the savings-bank of humanity.” — Arthur Frederick Saunders