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Powering Down

Observing Shabbat doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair: Going offline and saying the blessing over the wine—and the occasional martini—can help mark a relaxing weekly ‘cathedral in time’

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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.

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Well done, and thank you. The only real way to understand Shabbat, of course, is to do it.

It really is powerful stuff. I (Jewish) and my skeptical, non-Jewish partner began observing Shabbat together in February. Next week he has an appointment with our rabbi about converting. ;-)

philip mann says:

I got stuck on the part of the bacon-cheeseburger devouring husband and the borer-obsrvant wife. Marriages sure are strange. Good luck to you.

borei pri ha power button!
Will be sharing this article!

Harold says:

You quote from Rabbi Heschel, but he would not have been at all happy with your pick-one-from-column-A-and-pick-one-from-column-B approach.

And part of Shabbat is community — celebrating in roughly the same way with other people in the same neighborhood, not the unique, self-centered and isolationist practices that you’re calling a Sabbath.

Sarah says:

@Harold, way to encourage someone to come around to your superior point of view!

And Jen, so great to read this. It rings very similar to what’s up at our place, including the references to past Orthodoxy dalliances on the one hand and the cheeseburgers on the other.

Kol hakavod, Shabbat Shalom.

J Carpenter says:

Jennifer: amen to all that; you are blessed to have made the re-discovery of sabbath (or perhaps a first discovery—sabbath was hardly established to make life more work, including the thinking about the do’s and don’ts of what it involves). Unique, self-centered, isolationist—maybe at first, to learn, to love one’s self and love those closest instead of beating self up with guilt—but then, as you do describe, take your discovery of peace and rest to others, to family, to friends, to neighbors and strangers.
I do gently argue on the side of a faith-based sabbath: the statement regarding sabbath observance “not necessarily because God said so, but because it’s socially useful and psychologically beneficial” rather limits one’s view of God as a petulant tyrant, instead of a wise and benificent Creator who knows what we need. There just might be something to this God thing—?? And definitely keep reading Heschel!
Love and peace to you, especially this Sabbath and all following—

Thank you for this wonderful account, Ms. Bleyer.

I’m biased, though. My own Shabbat observance sounds much like yours. I’m always happiest when the day can be devoted to friends, family, a little Torah study, and maybe even shul, with no digital distraction, driving, or spending…but there are times when travel is necessary, and I make driving or money exchange exceptions if they’re in the service of getting to a “Shabbat-sanctioned” event (e.g., a picnic or family hike).

Is this cafeteria-style Shabbat observance, Harold? Yes. Would Rabbi Heschel have condemned it? Perhaps. But, really, a waffle/omelet brunch with friends doesn’t sound so “self-centered and isolationist” to me! In any case, if Ms. Bleyer’s family did attend shul on Shabbat, do you think you’d be happy with the shul they choose to attend? ;)

I just have to say that our Shabbat has always been traditional & family- based but we still used electronics- as long as it wasn’t for work. A few months ago I I stopped touching my computer on Saturday as I inevitably noticed an email that started the work-wheels spinning. It was great to unplug from that for one day each week.

About a month ago, my hubby & I decided to stop speaking on the phone on Shabbat as we found we’d constantly be sending our kids away so that we could “just finish this phone conversation”. So much for family day.

The unplugging for Shabbat has been wonderful and we are thrilled to have done it!

@Harold, at the same time Heschel was criticizing liberal Jews for being choosy about halacha, he was criticizing Orthodoxy for being closed-minded and overly-rigid. So don’t automatically assume he would agree with your message either.

Harold says:

Michael Doyle: What you wrote was correct. (I was a student of his.) Thank you for the reminder.

@harold, the Orthodox and Hassidic rabbis with whom I am familiar encourage people to start with baby steps. I’ve never heard one of them criticize any step that a person made in the direction of Sabbath observance.

@Harold, if you read Heschel carefully, you’ll see his only statement about halachic observance is that strict Sabbath observance has become oppressive. Please don’t confuse him with Rav Soloveichik.

Jo G says:

Wonderful story. Can totally empathize.. I did the same thing a year ago. Started with candles and added no tech. It was like a miracle. My oasis in the week

Susan Averbach says:

What I love about your article is that you made a personal choice about how to celebrate Shabbat, choice being the operative word. Your piece is inspiring! You experience the real spirit of Shabbat, rather than just following rules. I don’t know if you are aware of the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement. This is a movement peopled by those who believe strongly in making personal choices about how to express their Jewishness. Most members of this movement are humanists and agnostic. Some are atheists. All value their Jewishness and find ways to express that identity without compromising their beliefs. Your creativity in celebrating Shabbat is much like our creativity in celebrating our Jewish culture.

Rinzai says:

Harold tips his hand with the “I was a student of his” aside. People who criticize other people’s (non hurtful) belief systems may cloak their criticisms in lofty ideological terms. But what it often comes down to is plain old insecurity and personal weakness. Harold for instance accuses the writer of being “self-centered” then later name drops like a common Hollywood star-f*cker. Who in the world doesn’t have their own version of picking from one column and not another? The Taliban? And why in the world would that constitute a problem for anyone else? Unless it was a threat. To What?

Bryan says:

I think a Rosesweig-style “not yet” is appropriate here in regards to the author and her husband’s embrace of the Sabbath. I leave work early on Fridays to attend synagogue; I don’t check email or do any work; I usually have meals with friends in restaurants (NYC living).

When people ask, I will say that I am “zocher shabbat” (sabbath conscious) rather than “shomer shabbat” (strictly sabbath observant). The Torah commands us to remember (zocher) and keep (shomer) the Sabbath, so IMHO their level of observance is a mitzvah on its own merits. At some point in the future, I may become “shomer shabbat” so I will also generally say that I’m not shomer shabbat *yet*.

Kol hakavod on discovering Shabbat. May it provide you an oasis of rest and bring joy and blessings to your marriage and your family. Shabbat shalom.

The world needs Shabbat, now more than ever, and powering down is a great approach. See the link below:

Ruth says:

Jennifer, thank you for writing such a compelling, timely, and thought-provoking piece. I think you may have given me a reference point to start a dialogue with my husband and our nearly-15 year-old son!

Although our Jewishness is very important to us and a big part of who we “are”, my family will likely never be shomer shabbat for a variety of reasons; however, I’d love to have a way to delineate this time from the rest of the week. And I like the idea of crafting a way of observing that resonates with us, one that is meaningful and special for us. There are likely a lot of us who hesitate to jump into ANY observance of Shabbat without committing to an “ALL or nothing” observance – this was a great reminder that there is a third option. I also loved @Bryan’s perspective on being “zocher shabbat” … what a “glass-half-full” way to look at things!

I do have a question for the author though: If you and your spouse both work full-time (and I don’t know if you both do or not), and you also have a child, do you “miss” having Saturdays as a day to catch up on your “need-to-do” list at home? Cleaning the bathrooms, going to the supermarket, weeding the garden, etc. (etc, etc!)? When do you accomplish those tasks now that Saturday is off-limits?

At any rate, I see a sunny weekend of walking the dogs, reading, and enjoying time together as a family in my future. (Bacon cheeseburgers definitely optional.) :-) Shabbat Shalom!

Norman says:

Brian, thank you for reminding me and many others, no doubt, about the statement of “Zachor Shabbat”.

While many with a more ridged approach including the “FFBs” and the Yeshivish crowd, may scoff, you have brought relief to many others.
For that we thank you.

I love this article! Thank you.

masortiman says:

kol ha kavod to the author, and also to Jcarpenter and Brian.

While I too aspire to an halachic shabbat (though for me that is still a “not yet”), and feel that engaging with the halacha is central to jewish identity, and to a relationship with the Eternal, I think that any practical engagement with shabbat “on the ground” as it were, can be a wonderful step. If it helps someone practically, psychologically, that is good – I too believe the Eternal is merciful, so that Torah SHOULD be rewarding in human terms (we know and wrestle with aspects of it that are not – but why should we dismiss accepting its rewards when they are manifestly there?) And you may find a way to a more community focused shabbat without changing your beliefs – or to a shabbat more focused on the possibility of the Eternal without becoming more community focused – there are a range of possible “not yets”.

As an aside – our rabbinic decisors, as they make halachic decisions, should also reflect on stories like this, of how specific shabbat hilchot, positive and negative, brought specific families closer to Torah.

masortiman says:

Oh, and Seth – thanks for the link to your blog. I had the merit recently to spend some time in your beautiful kehillah, and found it very inspiring to my yiddishkeit.

Yaakov Hillel says:

All you atheists. Hi, Wellcome to Judaism,A religion that began 3500- 4000 years ago. 4000 years ago it started with wellcoming guests into our tent, to wash up and have a gourmet meal on the house, and recieving an explanation of one God who created the universe, No need to bow to idols and gods in charge of specific areas and services that had strife with each other. 3500 years ago, instead of a family religion it became a national religion. It had many social laws as pertaining to slavery and work rules rules of taxation and rules of setting up government. By the way the Torah states that if a slave runs away from his master, you are not permitted to return him, and you are obligated to find him work and a place to live among you. The sabbath remained a central theme written, 39 times in the Jewish law book the Torah. The Sabbath is the day of complete rest. Soldiers do not salute their superiors. Aryan slaves rest exactly like their Jewish owners. The work animals rest as well. Every body has one day in seven besides the five religious holidays. The Idea is socially brilliant and has been guarded by the Jews for these thousands of years. By the way Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr and lately Professor Hawkins all said that the world was created by God, You Atheists may be smarter.

Lazlo says:

Thanks so much for this, Ms. Bleyer!

As a secular Jewish person all of my life, who just went to Israel for the first time and found myself connecting with my roots, heritage and people in ways I never thought I would, this article is really warming and inspiring!

I guess I am for sure taking baby steps….I am currently scheduled to work on Saturdays, so it’s a day opposite to “powering down” for me! I’m now considering changing my schedule to be able to keep shabbat… who knows what will happen next!


Laurin Raiken says:

Hi Jennifer, Please get in touch with me !


Professor Laurin Raiken
Arts and Society Program
Gallatin School

Sifrina says:

Great article! I love the “borei pri ha power button” blessing idea!

I am an atheist, like your husband, who desperately craved a weekly Shabbos. I am fanatical about candle lighting and spend the next 25 hours peacefully reading, relaxing, spending time with family, even taking a refreshing jog outside or walk on the beach.

I don’t totally unplug. Unapologetically, I will make pleasant calls, listen to Shabbat music, read articles online, and even cook if that’s what I want to do; however, I never work and every week I make deliberate and conscious choices on how I wish to keep the day special. Often I prepare for Shabbos by setting aside special things to read, to eat, and to discuss with family. This practice of a secular Shabbat may offend orthodox Jews but it is how I choose to live and it brings me great pleasure. Shabbat Shalom!

Sifrina says:

PS The Society for Humanistic Judaism has great information on Secular Judaism and wonderful books and music you can order (to set aside for Shabbos or any time).

Also see our family’s congreation – Machar (a Secular Humanistic Jewish congregation located in Washington, DC). The website has lots of great secular blessings for Shabbat, non theistic Jewish liturgy for many holidays, even a Secular Hagaddah!

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Im not 100% on this, but I do like the concept. High-quality read here

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Powering Down

Observing Shabbat doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair: Going offline and saying the blessing over the wine—and the occasional martini—can help mark a relaxing weekly ‘cathedral in time’

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