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Time Regained

This week’s parasha, a discussion of the sabbatical year, should serve as a reminder that the most precious thing we have is free time. And it’s time we stopped wasting it in front of the television.

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In the interest of time, I’ll keep this column short.

Maybe then more of you will find the time to read it. You, after all, have other things going on in your lives: More than 85 percent of you, if you’re male, and 66 percent, if you’re female, work more than 40 hours each week. On average, you work 137 more hours a year than your counterparts in Japan and 260 hours more than your friends in Britain. Don’t even get me started about Germany: If the average Berliner wanted to catch up, he’d have to put in a staggering 499 hours, which is slightly more than 20 days. Then there’s the absence of paid parental leave—a virtue we share with virtually no other industrialized nation on earth—and the pitifully small number of vacation days we take each year (13, as opposed to a cool 30 in Finland) and all the other predatory policies that make these here United States among the least amenable in the world to true family values.

But you probably know all of this, and I’m not here to waste your time. What I am here to talk about is leisure.

Each summer, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its American Time Use Survey, a minute-by-minute breakdown of precisely what it is that we’re doing with our lives. For the most part, the serious analysis is devoted to tracking fluctuations in productivity, which is a good thing. But leisure matters just as much—what we choose to do when the work clock stops running tells us a lot about what sort of nation we are.

So, what is it that we choose to do with the five unscheduled hours that those of us 15 and older enjoy, on average, each day? Might we pick up a book and read? We do, for 20 minutes. Relax, think, daydream? Another 15. Play sports? Give it 19 minutes, tops. Socializing with friends? Thirty-eight minutes and we’re done. Even the Internet and computer games, those perennially invoked bugaboos, don’t make much of a dent; we spend no more than 23 minutes per day, according to the survey, “using computer for leisure.” Tack on an additional 17 minutes of various other leisurely activities—since this is a family publication, let us not dare to define them—and you’re left with a healthy 2.8 hours. And that is how much time the average American spends each day watching TV.

Now, far be it from me to criticize the pleasures of gawking at the screen. As someone who treats Hoarders like it was a Dickens novel and is uncomfortably familiar with the ins and outs of the hormonal hordes that populate MTV’s Teen Mom 2, I’m probably the last one to talk. But even I have my red lines, and they run well south of the three-hours-per-day mark. I believe in indulgence, but I believe in mindfulness even more.

It’s a principle made clear by this week’s parasha, in which God instructs Moses on the laws of the sabbatical year. Work the land for six years, the Almighty commands, and in the seventh let it rest and let people and beasts alike freely consume its produce. And every 50 years, he adds, celebrate a jubilee, release the servants, and return all ancestral estates to their original owners. We moderns, of course, may feel removed from such commandments. Fifty years, after all, is the time it takes some of us to pay off our mortgages, and most of us will never work our land with anything more than a lawnmower. But the spirit of the sabbatical year has never been more relevant. Work, the Torah tells us this week, can be demanding, but it must never be allowed to eclipse our deeper, spiritual commitments. And in whatever precious leisure time we have—one year in seven isn’t that much—we should reflect on the fundamental truths: that productivity is not an absolute good; that the mind withers unless permitted, every now and then, to do nothing; and that even the beasts of the field, from time to time, deserve a free lunch.

The saddest thing about reading the time-use survey is realizing how willingly we’ve all sacrificed these sacred ideas. When given free time, we squander it on the couch. When awarded the chance to regenerate, we reach for the remote instead. No greedy corporation did this to us, no narrow-minded legislator; this is a catastrophe of our own making. The sooner we can recall that leisure is holy—holy enough for the Lord himself to make it mandatory—the more likely we are to begin taking back our most precious, unrenewable resource: our time.

To that end, I propose a sabbatical of sorts, only in reverse, geared not to mitigate work but to balance out our misused free time. Let each of us select one day next week—for me, it would most likely be Tuesday, when nothing good is on anyway—and vow to keep away from the tube. Instead, let us talk or read or go for a walk, anything that doesn’t merely pacify our minds but challenges them and forces them to rethink and renew.

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Dror Ben Ami says:

hey leil,

well at least this week you talked a little bit about what is written in the torah….

you are wrong about the year of jubilee not being relevant to us. a generation in the torah is 40 years. the year of jubilee begins after 49 years, like the 49 days of counting the omer before the 50th day which brings “the festival of the first fruits”. as you noted: the year of jubilee marks the time when people will have their land returned to them, hence 40 years times 49 is 1960 years. if you want to start counting from the time the temple fell then 70 A.D. plus 1960 years will bring us to the year 2030. so, if numerology is your thing, then one could speculate that the temple will be rebuilt in 19 years from now.

along these same lines, even in modern times, we say “the earth is a school” and in any university in the world one can hear the question: “what is your field of study?”. hence, the land receives a sabbatical every 7 years and professors in universities also receive sabbiticals.

joining these two ideas together, one might say: “when the temple is rebuilt, a source of teaching will be re-established (restored) in israel ….”

J Carpenter says:

(if the Temple is to be rebuilt in 19 years, they’d better get on it soon . . . .)

My favorite book on the Sabbath is by A. J. Heschel—“what we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.” “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”

Thanks Liel, for helping us to remember the Sabbath—

Peace, JC

Daniel Allen says:


Thank you for this wonderful post. We all have our media guilty pleasures, including “The Jersey Shore.”

However there is a reminder of quality free time built in to each week – Shabbat! The challenge is to spread the spiritual energy of Shabbat across the whole week – no easy task, especially when at any give time of day, you’re not too far away from a Seinfeld re-run.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leonore Ruggles says:

I am just now re-learning to actually take a real day to rest. It’s called Shabbat. At the risk of sounding sarcastic – what a concept! I’ve learned that trying to squeeze in 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there is truly counterproductive. My mother used to tell me how she argued with her father about not flipping the light switch on Shabbat. It’s certainly not work &, after all, there was no electricity when we received the Torah. Aside light switches & such, I’m easing into something that I’d like to look forward to after a week of work & volunteer activities. It’s long overdue. I’ll be 76 in a month. An afternoon nap sounds – well – truly Divine.

Um, isn’t that the point of Shabbat? Hello? Is this thing on?

2.8 hours roughly covers the length of time of most baseball, basketball, and hockey games. Football is usually a bit longer. Watching sports on tv can range from the boring to the amazing. Watching the Detroit Red Wings over the last week on tv has been nothing short of transcendent.

I don’t think that watching tv is the problem. I think that what you’re watching on tv can be a problem. The same is true for talking and reading. If you engage in an activity that is meaningful to you (tv; reading; hobby; etc.) than you will not be wasting time.

Time is precious. Don’t waste it.

Annie B. says:

We Jews already have a day during which we may easily refrain from TV. That day is Shabbat, the day of rest. It is a day for reconnecting with God, with the Jewish community, with our families, our friends, and with our selves. A day for prayer, thinking, conversation, reading, walks, and yes, even a nap. We would all do well each Saturday to step back, unplug, and refrain not only from TV but from most of the things that tether us during the other six days of the week, not all of which are “work” in the traditional sense.

Michael, Leonore, Daniel: Thank you for taking the time to read the column and respond. Of course, Shabbat is acutely relevant to this discussion, but what we do with our leisure time on weekdays is a less-heralded question, and one on which this week’s parsha offers instructive thoughts. The logic of Shabbat deserves its respect, but rest and reflection shouldn’t be limited to a single day.

Dear Al,

I’m a Mets fan. I get very few transcendent moments these days…

Dr Marsha says:

Leil~ Thank you for this simple reminder of the import of Shabbat to all believers. I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning the benefits to us when we take seriously God’s command to rest on Shabbat. The prophet writes: “If you hold back your foot on Shabbat from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call Shabbat a delight, Adonai’s holy day, worth honoring; then honor it by not doing your usual things or pursuing your interests or speaking about them. If you do, you will find delight in Adonai–I will make you ride on the heights of the land and feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Ya’akov, for the mouth of Adonai has spoken” (Nevi’im 58:13-14). Clearly, Shabbat is about honoring G-d, and not serving the flesh. The psalmist reminds us: “In vain do you get up early and put off going to bed, working hard to earn a living; for he provided for his beloved, even whey they sleep” (Tehillim 127:2). We need to learn to rest–rest in Him Who holds everything and everyone in His most capable hands.

Dror Ben Ami says:

It is really sad to see all this associations with the Sabbath and watching televison.

When the Torah speaks of “work” it means “men studying the ways of God”. When the Torah speaks of “rest” it means “to stop trying to raise ourselves up to a higher level of understanding and allowing God to teach us his ways”

I don’t think God teaches his ways via the New York Mets…..

Dr Marsha says:

There appears to be a unifying theme to the entire 58th chapter of Yesha’Yahu that links fasting and restraint with Shabbat. Starting at verse 6: “Here is the sort of fast I [Adonai] want–releasing those unjustly bound, untying the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house, clothing the naked when you see them, fulfilling your duty to your kinsmen!”

It appears fasting is much more than giving up food or drink, rather it is a way of life. A life yielded to the will of the Father–a life that includes denying onself and caring for the needs of others less fortunate.

Beyond resting on Shabbat, it appears self restraint/self denial has a great deal to do with Shabbat.

Moreover, it appears that when the children of G-d deny themselves to tend to the needs of others, Adonai in turn tends to the needs of His own: “Then your light will burst forth like the morning, your new skin will quickly grow over your wound; your righteousness will precede you, and Adonai’s glory will follow you. Then you will call, and Adonai will answer; you will cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you will remove the yoke from among you, stop false accusation and slander, generously offer food to the hungry and meet the needs of the person in trouble; then your light will rise in the darkness, and your gloom become like noon.(vv 8-10).

The prophet continues: “Adonai will always guide you; he will satisfy your needs in the desert, he will renew the strength in your limbs; so that you will be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails. You will rebuild the ancient ruins, raise foundations from ages past and be called ‘Repairers of broken walls, Restorer of streets to live in” (vv 11-12).

In verses 13 and 14 Isaiah defines for the children of G-d the restraint they are to exercise on Shabbat and he pronounces the blessing that accompanies such restraint.

Your thoughts?

Dror Ben Ami says:

fasting is not related to the sabbath…. the children of israel are clearly told to gather a double portion of food

what you seem to be doing is confusing the teachings of man with the teachings of god

the sabbath should be compared with the throne of solomon. when solomon climbed the 6 steps he then sat and rested on the 7th level and then spoke to his people. hence the sabbath is about receiving information from a higher source. no one in the throne room of solomon, fed the hungry, clothe the poor, etc. etc.

if they did then they would have been too busy to hear the words of solomon…..

Dr Marsha says:

Thank you for your input, Dror. It is always insightful. What is your background, if I may ask?

Boruch Hashem, Lag b’Ohmer, 2011 at: (pg. 2), you may read my earnest efforts to secure freedom achieved through the practice of conflict resolution. Real time the fires send up the sparkles of ash that blend into the star at the reach of heaven; to wit, our prayer we shall live to tell generations to follow of the not catastrophic historic events that transpires when the Israeli National Palestinian State became the beacon to democracy in Modern Mesopotamia.

Personally, I prefer to use the television as background noise while I’m working on projects. As a teenager, I squandered a lot of time watching shows I’ll never think about again.


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Time Regained

This week’s parasha, a discussion of the sabbatical year, should serve as a reminder that the most precious thing we have is free time. And it’s time we stopped wasting it in front of the television.

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