Bring back the Sabbath

Sabbath_world When we moved to Austin in 1994 from Switzerland, our family thought we were coming home. As Americans in Switzerland we had been strangers in a strange land, cut off from the English language, college football, Tex-Mex and other such niceties peculiar to civilized societies. So we were looking forward to coming home, or so we thought. In the end Texas was the foreign country we had to adjust to, and missing the Alps from our bedroom window wasn’t our biggest disappointment. We found that were simply too out of shape to live in America again. In Switzerland our children came home from school for lunch from noon till 2 each day. Stores closed at 6 every evening (except for one weekend during the Christmas season when they would-gasp!–stay open till 9 pm!), so you couldn’t shop all day even if you wanted to. Less than a month on the school-to-work-to-church treadmill, we were gasping for breath and wishing we were back in more civilized climes.

This feeling of being out of touch with something essential due to the pace of modern life isn’t unique to former ex-pats. Judith Shulevitz is a Jewish writer living in New York City, arguably the fastest-paced city in the country. In her New York Times essay “Bring Back the Sabbath” she reflects on our need for rest and how it has moved her to reconsider the Sabbath: what it’s all about and what it represents.

“Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Freud's, once identified a disorder he called Sunday neurosis. Every Sunday (or, in the case of a Jewish patient, every Saturday), the Sunday neurotic developed a headache or a stomachache or an attack of depression. After ruling out purely physiological causes, including the rich food served at Sunday dinners, Ferenczi figured out what was bothering his patients. They were suffering from the Sabbath…”

“About a decade ago I developed a full-blown weekend disorder of my own. Perhaps because I am Jewish, it came on Friday nights. My mood would darken until, by Saturday afternoon, I'd be unresponsive and morose. My normal routine, which involved brunch with friends and swapping tales of misadventure in the relentless quest for romance and professional success, made me feel impossibly restless. I started spending Saturdays by myself. After a while I got lonely and did something that, as a teenager profoundly put off by her religious education, I could never have imagined wanting to do. I began dropping in on a nearby synagogue…”

“It was only much later, after I joined the synagogue and changed my life in a million other unforeseen ways, that I developed a theory about my condition. If Ferenczi's patients had suffered from the Sabbath, I was suffering from the lack thereof. In the Darwinian world of the New York 20-something, everything — even socializing, reading or exercising — felt like work or the pursuit of work by other means. Had I been able to consult Ferenczi, I believe he would have told me that I was experiencing the painful inklings of sanity. For in the 84 years since Ferenczi identified his syndrome, which bears a striking resemblance to what is now called workaholism, it has become the norm, and the Sabbath, the one day in seven dedicated to rest by divine command, has become the holiday Americans are most likely never to take…”

“Americans, of course, no longer cherish obedience as a virtue. We have become individualists, even libertarians. We will no longer put up with being told how to dispose of our free time. But our unwillingness to suffer constraint shouldn't blind us to the possibility that Sabbath discipline may have real benefits. For one thing, it reflects a paradoxical insight: only a Sabbath that you have to work for will appear worth keeping, just as, in psychoanalysis, a patient will value only those sessions for which he pays. Anything gotten for nothing will be treated as such. After all, as in therapy, the good that comes from the Sabbath is mostly intangible. We don't produce anything when we don't work…”

“Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of a long day. As the Cat in the Hat says, ''It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.'' This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation — at the very least a scrubbed house, a full larder and a bath. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction…”

“Do I think everyone else should observe a Sabbath? I believe it would be good for them, and even better for me, since the more widespread the ritual, the more likely I am to observe it…”

I recommend Judith Shulevitz’ essay to you. If you like it, you might also take a look at  her book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, published just last month.