When my husband turned to me one day and said he thought we should start observing Shabbat, it was only a little less surprising than if he had said he wanted to start crocheting tea-pot cozies.
“Shabbat?” I said. “Are you serious?”
My husband, you see, is a proudly secular Jew who thinks that religion amounts to at best harmless superstition and at worst nefarious brainwashing. He’s outwardly respectful of the religious, of course, and he has adapted admirably to my request that we keep kosher at home (even as he relishes his bacon cheeseburgers at restaurants). He dutifully sits through my family’s two lengthy Passover Seders every year. But he maintains that belief in God is as preposterous as belief in the tooth fairy.
So, it was somewhat shocking when he came up with this Shabbat idea, although I knew what had inspired it. We’d been feeling that something just wasn’t right about answering non-emergency work-related phone calls at 10:30 on a Friday night, or checking email reflexively upon awakening on Saturday. We yearned to carve out a space in our week to shut it all down.
This feeling was not unfamiliar to me. I have been on and off the Shabbat wagon for years as I’ve pinged among Orthodoxy Renewal, and all points between. At times I have kept Shabbat in ways that seem less like religious practice than like obsessive-compulsive disorder: I have pre-cut toilet paper; I have taped over the refrigerator light to prevent it from turning on; I have huffed up 14 flights of stairs in an elevator building; I have refrained from draining the water from a can of tuna lest I violate the rule against borer, or sorting. While I had experienced the sublime sensation that can arise through Sabbath observance, I could never muster enough spiritual certainty to say that it was essential.
So, here we were, my husband daring to acknowledge a value to Shabbat that has nothing to do with God, and me trying to let go of my internalized Orthodox expectations and accept that Shabbat need not be an all-or-nothing affair. Casting around to envision our own customized day of rest, we quickly found models. In the New York Times, Mark Bittman a few years ago popularized the term “secular Sabbath” to describe his practice of going tech-free for 24 hours. In last year’s The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz argued for observing some kind of Sabbath not necessarily because God said so but because it’s socially useful and psychologically beneficial. Advocating for a digital-free Sabbath is all the rage these days; there’s even a National Day of Unplugging, spearheaded by the media-savvy Jewish group Reboot, which recently released a no-irony-intended iPhone app that enables users to announce their unplugged status to their Facebook friends and Twitter followers.
After my husband and I decided to take the plunge, we came to the task of setting our parameters. We agreed that would shut down our phones and computers—really shut them down, none of that wimpy silent crap. We would light Shabbat candles. We would bless and drink wine (as well as gin martinis). We would try not to use money or travel except by foot, but, in an unapologetic departure from Orthodoxy, we would allow cooking, playing music, writing, and even occasional DVD-watching.
Our experiment began around New Year’s. On a Friday afternoon, we called our parents to remind them that we would be unreachable for a day, as if bidding them farewell before a long plane flight. We turned off our phones and computers with the kind of high drama that seemed to warrant its own blessing (“borei pri ha power button,” perhaps). Then we sat down and took a deep breath, suddenly becoming aware that we actually had lungs. On Saturday, we ate good food, took a walk, and read. We listened to music carefully, focused on every lyric and instrument. We played and laughed with our young daughter.
And there were corporeal pleasures too. Say what you will about hazelnut gelato or Swedish massage, but is there anything more indulgent than sex in the afternoon? I recalled the popular teaching that it’s a “double mitzvah” to have sex on Shabbat, as both observing the day of rest and having sex with your spouse are mitzvot.
But our greatest enjoyment was simply being suspended in a day of being rather than doing. Piled on the couch together as a family without the distractions of interactive technology, divorced from the acquisitive and aspirational impulses that drive most of modern life, we understood in the most visceral way how the deprivations one enforces on the Sabbath enable a kind of liberation. Our attention was reserved for each other. The world was overlaid with glittery stillness. We stepped back from the buzzing of our lives and said, “Here we are.” Without being able to articulate exactly what holiness is, we agreed that it felt holy. Even my non-believing husband, who did not revise his ideas about God, was convinced. He became nearly fanatical about Shabbat.
Secular justifications for the Sabbath are, of course, not new. In her book, Shulevitz reviews dozens of them, invoking Freud, Marx, and Hannah Arendt, and explaining the urge to observe a Sabbath based on community bonding, political utility, or common overwork. Even Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1951 masterpiece, The Sabbath, can be read as a celebration of what he called the weekly “cathedral in time” for its positive effects on humanity, without necessitating belief in a supernatural God.
“To set apart one day a week for freedom,” Heschel writes, “a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”
It’s been nearly six months since we began observing our modified Sabbath. There have been relapses, certainly. We turned on the computer one Saturday to look up guitar chords for a certain song, and the next thing I knew we were absentmindedly scrolling through real-estate listings. On a few occasions, when an airplane flight or work meeting has been unavoidable on a Saturday, we have wondered if it would be so terrible to move Shabbat to Sunday.
But largely we have stuck with it. Mindful of the invocation to enjoy the seventh day with community, we invite family and friends over for Shabbat lunch, labeling the meal “brunch” and serving waffles and omelets, all the more comfortable for the secular. We fantasize, perhaps naively, that once our toddler daughter is allowed TV and computer time, we will continue to enforce Shabbat as a timeout from screen absorption. We explain to others why we don’t answer their phone calls on Saturdays and see them respond with equal amounts of amazement, admiration, and envy. Their eyes widen and they inquire in hushed tones, as if we had stumbled upon a stash of an amazing new illicit drug. Really? What’s it like?
What we tell them, with nearly evangelical fervor, is this: Shabbat is like exercising. You avoid it. You groan about it. You think of a million other things you would rather do. Finally, you drag yourself to do it and you feel amazing. You vow that you will keep doing it over and over again and become a whole new super healthy glowing you. You approach Oprahish levels of inner calm and rejuvenation. And you may just feel so present that you forget about your plugged-in life altogether. It’s a religious ritual that even an atheist can love.
Jennifer Bleyer is a New York-based journalist who has written recently for the New York Times, Slate, Cosmopolitan, City Pages, and TheAtlantic.com. She tweets at @jennypencil.
Jennifer Bleyer is a New York-based psychotherapist and writer.