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The Sabbath in an Era of Climate Change

An ancient Jewish practice may help save us all

Jonathan Schorsch
February 04, 2020
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine

We humans face a set of dire ecological crises, the results of what many now call the Anthropocene Era, the era of human modification of earth’s planetary systems. These crises—global warming, altered weather, species extinction, the threats of various kinds of toxic pollution, the proliferation of garbage, soil erosion, desertification, declining freshwater supplies, and so on—constitute not only an absolutely real imminent threat to the future well-being of humankind, but also, it sometimes seems, a modern manifestation of the various litanies of biblical curses. The multiplicitous nature of the crises demands multiple solutions: political, economic, technological, psychological, ethical, behavioral, and even spiritual. Equally needed is a holistic understanding of how we got to this calamitous situation and how we avoid it in the future. Given their continued widespread influence, biblical religion and its offshoots offer one particularly compelling and promising solution: Shabbat, the Sabbath day of rest. A weekly ritual, both symbolic and with real-world impacts, widespread observance of Shabbat done right could reduce environmental harm by about one-seventh in much of the world and provide a platform for ongoing meditating on our environmental sins and their consequences.

Imagine if most of the world’s monotheists, those who come from traditions that profess to observe a weekly Sabbath, along with anyone else who cared to, chose for one day out of seven to essentially eliminate their own harm to the environment on a consistent basis. This could prove to be the one of the cheapest environmental solutions at humanity’s disposal. In theory, more maximal Shabbat observance could produce a 14.3% (one-seventh) reduction in carbon emissions without additional spending, new technologies, or unintended environmental consequences—one day out of seven where emissions are nearly eliminated. Observing a truly full weekly Shabbat, “doing nothing,” as it were, offers an effective action that one can take now to help heal our environment. Since the heavily environmentally damaging “developed” world is made up mostly of monotheists, the impact of eliminating most emissions once weekly would be particularly important. Judaism and Christianity call the Sabbath an obligation. If we really believe that radical change in our behavior is necessary for environmental reasons—I certainly do—then don’t these reasons make Sabbath, along with all other environmental solutions, an obligation?

I have initiated a campaign to inspire a mass movement of more maximal Sabbath-keeping among monotheists—and all others who are interested: the Green Sabbath Project. Our website will feature readings, crowd-sourced liturgy, ads available for use, suggestions for Sabbath activities, a global calendar of local Sabbath get-togethers and events, links to related campaigns and organizations, and more. The campaign aims to produce as minimal an environmental impact as possible, using 21st-century methods to achieve religion’s age-old strategy of propagating an effective network mostly by word-of-mouth.

The traditional Jewish framework of the kinds of activity forbidden on Shabbat make an excellent guideline for us today for environmental reasons.

I believe that the traditional Jewish framework of the kinds of activity forbidden on Shabbat make an excellent guideline for us today for environmental reasons, whether or not one believes in God or cares for organized religion. I am calling for flexible but maximal observance of a weekly day of rest, whether it is Saturday, Sunday, or Friday for different people or in different places. I am not calling for more traditionalist observance in general by Jews or Christians, for biblical or rabbinic Shabbat in its “Orthodox” Jewish guise. Our Sabbath days must become a time of active avoidance of environmental vandalism, a time for programmatic congregational and individual reflection on how we are undoing creation. Like all steps social, political, and spiritual, whether a green Sabbath is lip service or radical (that is, addressing the root causes of a problem) depends on how it is implemented. I intend green Sabbaths to be a radical ritual within which we can digest anew the biblical prophets’ warnings against the corruption of the rich and powerful, the oppression of the poor, and the self-centered pursuit of shortsighted pleasures, understanding how relevant such warnings are to the ecological devastation wrought by hypercapitalism.

Sabbath properly practiced offers a weekly interruption of the suicidal econometric fantasy of infinite growth, a weekly divestment from fossil fuels, a weekly investment in local community. As Greta Thunberg reminds us repeatedly, we already know what the solutions are for our environmental crises. Green Sabbaths will provide a recurring greenhouse for incubating the required collective consciousness and willpower—the ultimate renewable energies—to make the solutions reality. Green Sabbaths will constitute both a model of the ecologically sane world to come and an actual foretaste of it.


The spiritual virtues of Sabbath have been developed for millennia. The literature on the Sabbath in Judaism and Christianity, its meanings, and historical transformations is by now vast and rich. In Hellenistic fashion, Philo thought Shabbat was a day to avoid physical labor and concentrate on the “higher” activities of the mind and soul. Medieval Jewish mystics in Egypt, influenced by Sufism, saw in Shabbat an opportunity to, in the words of historian Paul Fenton, “curb worldly preoccupations in order to give oneself over to worship and seclusion (halwa), ‘to delight in God’s recollection (dikr) and to fill one’s thoughts with’” God. So compelling are the spiritual values of observing Sabbath, especially in our era of commercialism, technological hubris, and distraction, that a host of Jews in our times have turned, or returned, to the Sabbath with an eagerness that perhaps reflects desperation. The same is true among Christians.

As manifold as the dimensions of Sabbath are, I make a more radical plea: I urge all those who belong to traditions or congregations that keep the Sabbath, whether on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, to observe it along the lines of the ancient rabbinic understanding as much as possible. This means that if you belong to a group or people that practices a day of rest, for the sake of our planetary health you will make that day as free as possible from any manipulation of nature.

Basing themselves on the biblical text and oral tradition, the ancient rabbis saw in the Sabbath day not merely a symbolic reflection of God’s resting after having created existence as we know it, nor as a mere metaphorical form of imitatio dei. From the biblical description of the construction of the mobile desert Tabernacle they derived 39 types of labor, all of which they prohibited on the Sabbath under the general biblical commandment to refrain from working on that day (Exodus 20:10-11, 23:12, 31:14-15; Deuteronomy 5:14). Thus the Mishnah, Judaism’s earliest extant legal code, edited (circa 200 CE) by Rabbi Judah Hanasi, forbade:

sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting grain, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, cleaning it, beating it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it up, writing down two letters, erasing in order to write two letters; building, taking down; extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking with a hammer, carrying [something] from one domain to another (M. Shabbat 7:2).

For the rabbis, close readers of the priestly sources, the Tabernacle stood as a human-built microcosm of the natural macrocosm that is God’s creation. Therefore, any kind of labor that contributed to the erection of this human minicosmos was to be avoided on Shabbat, a means of emulating God’s refraining from the work of creating nature on the seventh day. Rest means cessation from work, leaving the world as it is without human intervention, since work means transforming what is given, what exists. The repeated emphasis in this Mishnah on the number two shows that for the rabbis the leap from one to two reflected a leap from nature as unity to the multiplicity of culture. On the Sabbath day, like God resting, Israelites/Jews are to stop changing the world around them.

Note that this is not a call for extreme or total asceticism, for absolute withdrawal from the world. For six days a week we are invited, indeed commanded, to work (Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12, 31:15; Deuteronomy 5:13), that is, to transform, to manipulate the world for our own sustenance, to (hopefully) improve the world both for its sake and ours. But not always, not incessantly. Sabbath in this sense is meant to be a healthy, holy balance of worldliness and withdrawal. Just one day out of seven we are asked to control our creative craving to, our anxious worry that we must do and make.

Already in the biblical text we are told that this commandment to cease from working is not only a metaphysical, spiritual matter. Sabbath rest is not just required because God wants it. It is not merely beneficial to humans. The world needs its rest. The trans-species community of living beings—work animals, for instance—cannot be pressed constantly; the social hierarchy, whose differentiation between those at the top and those at the bottom results from human behavior, cannot survive endless demands (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14). The Bible connects the weekly Sabbath to the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year (Exodus 23:10-12), regarding which we are told explicitly that the land itself desires to rest (Leviticus 26:34-35). In certain respects, this cultural system acknowledges that the natural world has a voice and that we are not free to ignore it.

Sabbath rest is not just required because God wants it. It is not merely beneficial to humans. The world needs its rest.

Divergences in ancient approaches to commemorating or celebrating the Sabbath show the prescience of the rabbinic approach. While many Judaeans fasted, since the Bible seemed to call for withdrawal from worldly activities, others made sure to feast, as God seemed to desire the day to be a “delight” (Isaiah 53:13). The rabbis elaborated a series of positive commandments to ensure that observers of the Sabbath experienced its delight as meaningful and pleasant: three festive meals, study of the Torah, sexual relations between spouses. The rabbis insisted that the Sabbath comprise a day of difference: On this day one’s entire way of being was to be changed in order to reflect its holiness. Transformation was thus moved from the material realm to the domestic sphere, where the most intimate interpersonal relations exist, and to personal inwardness.

The various qualities and benefits of the Sabbath are highlighted by many thinkers down to our own times. They note its sacred nature, its ability to get us to focus on communing with the divine, prioritize what is truly important, train in self-restraint, curtail desire, revive family togetherness, cultivate self-sufficiency, restore personal energy, its providing psychological cushioning in the face of taxing work-life, a temporary decrease in environmental harm, the intentional interruption of material accumulation, and so on. Even the most secular individuals increasingly appreciate these insightful and urgently relevant understandings of the beauties and benefits of the Sabbath. We see more and more calls for “Sabbaths” from our screen-laden devices, such as Tiffany Shlain’s Technology Shabbats, cities implementing car-free days, and the like.

From the perspective of our current ecological crises, I believe that we can no longer afford symbolic or “minimal” observance of the Sabbath. To my mind, observing Sabbath “rabbinically” means actual, material avoidance of non-Sabbath-like activities, not just paying lip service to rest or performing symbolic rest. Observance of the Sabbath “maximally” goes a long way further environmentally than the current Sabbath observance of most monotheists (including most Jews). In a more maximal form, along the lines envisioned by the ancient rabbis, Sabbath observers on their Sabbath day commit not to build, operate or work in factories, do business, farm, produce clothes at home, drive cars, fly, use engines of any kind, spend money, hunt, etc. People might avoid using electricity. Cooking could be done in advance—or one could suffice with room-temperature food. Unplugged, with our distractions eliminated, Shabbat can serve us as a day for taking a walk, playing with our kids, reading on our own or reading out loud, conversing with friends or singing, and regenerating energy for fighting for justice. Green Sabbaths can become a day to celebrate through local community activities without producing carbon emissions.

Sensitive to issues of cultural imperialism, I am addressing Jews, Christians, and Muslims most directly, as they come from traditions promulgating the Sabbath. For Muslims, the idea of Sabbath does not appear to include refraining from labor, however, so already my call requires the importation of a seemingly non-Muslim worldview. The traditions of non-monotheists do not contain the Sabbath at all—but likely contain other potent environmental practices. I am not interested in “converting” people to Judaism or even to traditional Shabbat observance. At the same time, I see Shabbat as a powerful means to achieve strongly desirable spiritual and now ecological ends.


Among others, German Evangelical theologian Jürgen Moltmann some 30 years ago called on Christians to observe the Sabbath “in the original sense of abstaining for one day a week from all commercial, productive, and industrial activities.” I could not agree more. Many of the calls for observing the Sabbath have lacked details or clear parameters, however. See, for instance, some of the inspired but vague calls a few years ago for a Green Sabbath. The United Nations came up with a nondenominational Environmental Sabbath already in 1990, but it was only an annual commemoration and had no concrete paths to action. The rabbinic model not only provides a well-thought-out framework for making Sabbath truly ecological, it was the original such model: a system for coping with and providing spiritual and cognitive fortitude against what for the rabbis was already then the Anthropocene Era, a world altered by human activity.

Those who are indifferent to religion, dislike it, or oppose it may well shout in distress at such a “religious” approach. Yet it is noteworthy how the new “green values,” such as cooperativeness, mindfulness, simplicity, temperance, and respect for nature, overlap with values religion at its best has taught for millennia. The brilliance of Judaism is that it demands action, not just goodwill or a well-intentioned heart. Along with other inescapable practical changes we must make—renewable energies, closed-loop economies, the elimination of corporate-led policymaking, etc.—the clearly spelled-out high expectations of rabbinic Shabbat promise concrete results for both planet and individual. Shabbat’s holistic nature means that it unites intention and practice, internal and external benefit, the self and community, the material realm and the more-than-human.

A weekly green Sabbath need have nothing to do with God, theocrats, clergy, or rabbinic rules. Yet I am swayed by scholars who point to the power of religious ritual to forge in individuals and groups deep and long-lasting commitment to collective goals. Within the realm of environmentalism more specifically, rituals from traditional cultures have been increasingly valued by scholars, while new rituals have been created by environmentalists for situations where rationalist and technocratic approaches fail to engage the emotions. In 2016, Stephen Cave and Sarah Darwin penned one such provocative recognition of ritual’s potency for the ecologically minded. Some concerned citizens came up with Lost Species Day, a day on which to mourn species that have gone extinct. Marcus Coates produced a thought-provoking video about a 2017 Irish project to issue a public apology to the Great Auk, which had just been declared extinct.

Blaming corporations alone for the collapsing planetary ecosystem absolves the rest of us of our part in benefiting from and maintaining a system based on depredation of the environment. Sabbath-keeping is by no means the only solution to environmental breakdown; but it offers an unparalleled tool for both achieving real results and focusing our attention on the whys and hows of human ecocide. I worry that the imperatives of reason that should lead us to act to save our environment do not convince people the way often only religious imperatives seem to.

From the perspective of those who object to how environmentalism might be influencing “traditional” religion, I say that given the current environmental catastrophe, theology must lead to practice. Reminders, metaphors, and symbols are only helpful if they lead to radical changes in our practices. Traditional believers must recognize that at this point finding actual, effective environmental solutions is not just an ethical nicety; it is truly a necessity if we are to prevent a kind of slow-motion apocalypse. A green Sabbath makes religious individuals and communities part of the solution, by virtue of one of their central religious practices. A green Sabbath restores Shabbat to its original intention of commemorating the creation of the world—zekher lema’aseh bereishit (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:7-10). Rabbi Micha Odenheimer notes that the only concrete biblical Sabbath prohibition other than abstaining from work is refraining from the burning of fires (Exodus 35:3), which he reads half-playfully as a warning against emitting carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases on Shabbat. While some seek eco-salvation in expensive and untried new technological fixes such as biofuels, carbon capture, or geoengineering, Shabbat offers a religious remedy that acknowledges and addresses the root cause of our problems: the human psyche.

The ancient rabbis said: “If [the people] Israel observed a single Sabbath properly, immediately would the son of David [i.e., the messiah] come” and “If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths [in a row] as properly as they should, then messiah would come” (Palestinian Talmud, Ta’anit 64a; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a and Shabbat 118b). I have a more modest vision (no messiah here) and yet perhaps a more audacious one: If a billion or more monotheists—and interested Hindus, Buddhists, indigenous peoples, atheists, and agnostics—observed a weekly Shabbat seriously for the near term, imagine how much of a break we would be giving the world that sustains us, a world that desperately needs some rest. Without such a renewal for the world it is hard for me to contemplate the kind of messianic future that religion predicts. We and the world, both beloved by God, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tell us, are bound together and if we humans—as God’s agents or in the absence of divine action—do not forestall the kind of polyvalent death that we seem to be unleashing, we are not likely to have much of a future at all.

If we represent knowledge as a tree, we know that things that are divided are yet connected. We know that to observe the divisions and ignore the connections is to destroy the tree.
—Wendell Berry


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Jonathan Schorsch teaches Jewish religious and intellectual history at Universität Potsdam and is the founding director of the Jewish Activism Summer School (Berlin).