Shabbat by any other name

Shabbat by any other name

If “three makes a trend,” as a newsroom saying has it, then Shabbat is having its media moment.

March 19-20 was the “National Day of Unplugging,” an effort by the “social entrepreneurs” at the Jewish think-tank Reboot to get people “to recharge themselves by not using computers, cell phones, or any technology” for 24 hours, from sundown to sundown.

It was part of an effort to promote their 10-point Sabbath Manifesto, “a modern spin on the ancient notion of a day of rest.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Christie proposed repealing the “blue laws” that keep many Bergen County businesses closed on Sundays. Christie covets the tax dollars, while many county politicians, in a victory of quality of life over commerce, vowed to fight for our right not to shop.

This month also sees the publication of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by the literary critic Judith Shulevitz. The book combines memoir with a historical and literary survey of the Sabbath in its many forms. It too is a manifesto of sorts, as a once reluctant Shulevitz — whose mother and father disagreed bitterly about how and whether to observe Shabbat — surrenders to what she calls Shabbat’s “fantasy of wholeness.”

In its focus on the Jewish Sabbath, her book reads like one Abraham Joshua Heschel might have written if he had lived in the age of Blackberries, Twitter, and text-messaging. She portrays Shabbat as a “gorgeously naive” respite from the “networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS.” On Shabbat, deprived of our devices, our cars, and our money, we are literally grounded. “If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far,” she explains. “If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face.”

But she knows that Shabbat is not only an escape from, but also a set of obligations to. In an e-mail exchange with one of her former colleagues at Slate, Shulevitz explains how she craves the Shabbat rules that seem designed to “make life as inconvenient as possible.” She writes: “We need rules (which, by the way, can be customs; they don’t have to be laws) to teach us the tricky but essential distinction between time spent advancing ourselves and our mastery over the world, and time spent on one another.”

She’s serious about the rules, not in the sense of following Halacha to the letter, but in supporting rules — even laws — that will keep the ever-expanding work week from swallowing our leisure and family time completely. Labor legislation would take a “Sabbatarian approach.” And lest she be added to yet another conservative blog rant about creeping “socialism,” she reminds us that it was Stalin who instituted the nepreryvka, the uninterrupted work week.

That’s why the blue laws are among the things I like about living in Bergen — for a set of laws adopted by a majority referendum and enforced by elected officials, they are so gorgeously countercultural. Every seven years, my fellow citizens send a collective “no” to some of the county’s largest corporate interests. Up against the mall, Wal-Mart shoppers!

Of course, since I also keep Shabbat, that’s two days a week I can’t shop locally. But the trade-off is worth it. Shabbat is a great weekly vacation in and from time — come sundown Friday, I almost hear a gate clanking shut behind me, separating me from all the shmutz of the work week as I step into a haven free from my non-family obligations. Friday nights we move dinner from the kitchen to the dining room, dress up a little, linger over a multiple-course meal, take a walk when it’s done. The kids, teens now, are off the computers; I resist the temptation of TV. This may nauseate you a little, but we often spend the night playing a family card game.

If someone were to ask me to define “success,” I’d say it’s the ability and luxury to, no matter what else is going on in your life, carve out four hours a week that look exactly like that.

I’m in shul on Saturday mornings, but I don’t feel shul-going makes Shabbat Shabbat (although I do like communing with my people). Or at least I don’t think you need shul to begin to appreciate the notion of Shabbat.

But you do need some rules, and the Shabbat Manifesto boils it down to the basics: “Avoid technology, connect with loved ones, nurture your health, get outside, avoid commerce, light candles, drink wine, eat bread, find silence, and give back.”

That’s a good list, but perhaps an intimidating one. A few years back, when I worked at a different Jewish think-tank, I also toyed with the idea of a national, nonsectarian, technology-free day (that it never got off the ground suggests why some people become “social entrepreneurs” and others belong in journalism). The cell phone is both a symbol and instrument of what Heschel called the “tyranny of things of space.” Like Reboot, I think “unplugging” is the first step toward regaining mastery over time.

Turn off, tune in, drop — oh, you know what I mean: Shabbat Shalom.

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