Our ever-increasing, modern-day dependency on electronic connectivity makes it easier and easier to make the case for Shabbat observance.
“Six days a week, I’m never without this little piece of plastic, chips and wires that miraculously connect me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient, but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention,” wrote Joe Lieberman, who meticulously observed a traditional Shabbat throughout his long tenure in the United States Senate.
The busier and more distracted we become, the more we need and appreciate a physical, spiritual and emotional break. As a day of rules and restrictions, however, Shabbat does not seem to be the optimal way to accomplish this break. Its laws, which the Talmud derives from the commandment in this week’s parshah to desist on Shabbat from the activities required for building the Mishkan, are among the most numerous and detailed in the whole of halacha (Jewish law). How does following this catalog of restrictive rules fit with the feeling of freedom that we require for rest and repose?
To understand the positive and uniquely constructive effect of the Shabbat restrictions, it is useful to consider several angles. It is easier to see how the Shabbat requirements imposed a much-needed physical rest in prior generations when for a larger portion of the population work equaled labor.
A beautiful example is the Jewish stevedores of Thessaloniki, Greece, who, with other types of Jewish port workers, were so essential to the functioning of its busy international seaport that it had the unique distinction of being closed on Shabbat. Norwegian Journalist Alexander Kielland reportedly found himself as a passenger on a boat that arrived at the port on a Saturday and wrote about how dissatisfied his fellow passengers were with the Jews and their Sabbath since they had to wait until the next morning before the boat could be docked and unloaded.
When the big, burly, Jewish stevedores and porters finally expertly unloaded the boat with their bare hands, Kielland observed with great interest. He could not square the circle of how these ostensibly brutish, unsophisticated and unrefined men who spend their days as physical laborers could forgo their Saturday income for religious reasons.
Still in Thessaloniki when the next Shabbat came around, he began to understand the transformative power of Shabbat when he made it a point to walk through the Jewish neighborhood where he could scarcely recognize the same men who were now dressed in Shabbat finery, surrounded by their families, and exuding peacefulness and serenity. He wrote that he then grasped how the mighty Romans fell but the Jews live on.
And in an era like our own when even blue-collar employees often do more office and administrative work than physical labor, it is the restrictions of Shabbat that make its weekly rest effective. Without the limitations on phones, messaging and email that its laws provide, breaking free of the pressure of checking up on or responding to the communications from our weekday work would be all but impossible.
Senator Lieberman made this point while highlighting the irony of restrictions creating rest. “If there were no Sabbath law to keep me from sending and receiving email all day as I normally do,” he wrote, “do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free.”
The self-imposed limitations through which we attempt to regulate our work-life balance can never create the uncompromising freedom that our divinely imposed Shabbat delivers every week. There is no better time to move forward by coming back to the secret of our continuity and our beautiful national treasure. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.