Recovering the Sabbath: Rest and the Culture of Work

Natasha Moore suggests that Sabbath is an ancient practice that speaks directly to modern maladies.

“Time management” is a collective fixation of the modern West. And yet, in a broader sense, we give very little thought to the structure and rhythm of our day-to-day lives.

The philosopher Charles Taylor offers a sweeping diagnosis of our dysfunctional relationship with time:

“We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done. This 'time frame' deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber's famous description of a stahlhartes Gehause (iron cage).”

Symptoms of this breakdown in temporal order and well-being are manifold, and far-reaching. They manifest most visibly as glitches in what we rather naively call “work-life balance,” with its premise of separation between the two.

Australia is the land of lifestyle; we believe in long weekends, gap years and early, no-strings-attached retirement. Yet Australians share other Western countries' issues with overwork, insomnia, and anxiety; in 2013, 65% of Australians reported that current stress was affecting their mental health.

The curious glorification of “busyness” continues apace. William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry, tells the story of a friend of his who, learning English as a recent immigrant to the United States, developed a habit of answering the question “How are you?” with a huge smile and the answer, “Busy, very busy!” When he asked her about it, Powers found that she had simply concluded that this was the idiomatic, expected response – the “Fine, thank you” of our time.

We are writers and re-writers of to-do lists we never quite cross off, who allot increasing portions of our time to so-called “life admin” and measure our worth and satisfaction in terms of productivity. Our thirst for efficiency overbrims the workplace to govern family and social life as well, from weekend sport and household chores to eating well, writing Christmas cards, “keeping up” with friends.

More abstractly – and more profoundly – we find ourselves frustrated and dissatisfied with “the waking and sleeping, the sludge of e-mails and appointments, the low-temperature life that is, for the most part, life,” as poet Christian Wiman describes it. We long for more intensity to our daily, humdrum existence. “There are other, fuller ways of being in the world,” suggests Wiman, and certainly we have a hunch that it might be so. The reality, however, is elusive.

Keeping the Sabbath

Into the midst of these multiple malfunctions cuts the now alien concept of Sabbath. Although our local legacy of Sabbath probably consists of little more than slightly reduced Sunday trading, in many places in the past (for Puritans and their descendants in America in particular) the idea of Sabbath rest came to mean primarily a host of restrictions – no shopping, no drinking, no playing cards, no sport, no seeing films and so on – rather than something life-affirming. The ancient command “thou shalt not work on the seventh day” morphed over time into “thou shalt not play on Sunday.” The practice of Sabbath became merely another burden for people already struggling with time.

This is ironic, given its origins. The Sabbath comes as imperative number four in that body of law we call the Ten Commandments; this means that, before any mention of murder, property, or sex, God directs ancient Israel to take a holiday one day out of every seven. The command is linked both to the character of God – who himself is said to have rested after the act of creation – and, later, to the exodus from Egypt:

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15) Resting on the seventh day was foundational to the identity of Israel as God's people. They had been a slave people in Egypt and God rescued them; he therefore commands them to refuse the slavery of constant work in their own land. The Sabbath is Israel's weekly Independence Day as a nation of liberated slaves.

This idea of a regular day of rest is without precedent or parallel in the ancient world. (Historians who proceed from the assumption that it could not have originated with ancient Israel – presumably because they cannot accept the Bible's account of its divine origins – declare the Sabbath a mystery, an unexplained anomaly.) For most of ancient history, elites worked as little as possible and peasants worked constantly: every day, all year round, with the exception perhaps of a few religious festivals.

However, by the first century, Sabbath had caught on, and peoples across the Roman Empire had embraced the Jewish custom of giving themselves a day off. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that:

“The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread.” It had become evident across geographical and cultural boundaries that this was not simply a religious ritual or tradition, an identity marker for a particular ethnic group, but that it reflected sound wisdom for the ordering of human life.

Our own five-day workweek is doubly a Jewish inheritance: not only is regular time off from work for all a Judeo-Christian rather than Graeco-Roman cultural legacy, but the transition to a two-day weekend in the early twentieth century was first made to accommodate Jewish workers, who observed a Saturday Sabbath. There is, in fact, a growing momentum behind calls to prune another workday from our weeks, in response to evidence that working four days instead of five can increase both productivity and morale.

Yet the question of formal work hours disregards the ways in which the paradigm of paid work characterises our engagement with the rest of life, and how little of what happens on our days “off” could be accurately described as rest.

Subversive Sabbath

Sabbath is more than a decision not to undertake salaried employment (if possible) on a Sunday. It is a robustly counter-cultural practice; an exercise in resistance and subversion. Its effects run deep and can be unexpected. I suggest that there are at least seven significant benefits to the practice of Sabbath rest.

Freedom from work

Most obviously, a Sabbath that is “set apart” (the technical meaning of keeping the Sabbath “holy” as the original command puts it) from the other six days offers a respite from the demands and (ideally) the mentality of work. The commitment to a weekly pause means that, even when things at the office (or elsewhere) are at their most relentless, there is a buffer against work that keeps it from becoming the whole of life, or simply more of life than it merits. It prevents work creep. It affords fresh perspectives on the work we do, shrinking it to its proper dimensions as well as allowing new ideas and approaches to percolate.

Interestingly, those who observe a Sabbath affirm across the board that they are more productive, not less, because they allow no work or work-like activity to cross the threshold of that seventh day. (Parkinson's law, which states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”, may be relevant here.) Marva Dawn, an American theologian who has written on the topic of Sabbath, goes so far as to guarantee such an outcome. For those whose initial reaction to the idea of Sabbath is “but I have too much to do,” she respectfully submits that as the very reason they need one:

“I can promise you that if you develop a lifestyle in which you spend one day as a Sabbath day without wearing a watch, you will be more able to accomplish all that you have to do on the days that you wear one.”

Freedom from the tyranny of productivity

In 1928, John Maynard Keynes confidently anticipated that advances in technology would reduce the working week to a mere 15 hours within 100 years. Similarly, a 1960s Senate subcommittee predicted that Americans would be working 14 hours a week by 2000. Drastic increases in productivity in the intervening period have instead served simply to fuel consumerism, and a preoccupation with productivity as an undisputed good in itself.

It is by now axiomatic that Westerners tend to define themselves by what they get done, and to assess and classify others in terms of their profession, their accomplishments and their “usefulness.” If our sense of self is bound up with what we produce or achieve or tick off day by day – if we find ourselves restless and dissatisfied on occasions when we are not “getting anything done” – then we will find some form of Sabbath practice at once galling and yet sorely needed.

American theologian Walter Brueggemann claims that people who “remember and keep Sabbath find they are less driven, less coerced, less frantic to meet deadlines, free to be, rather than to do.” Instead of compromising productivity, Sabbath can increase it; but to use it as a means to that end is precisely to miss the point. Sabbath is designed not only to make us more efficient and fruitful in our work, but more fundamentally to challenge our obsession with efficiency and with productivity.

Freedom from anxiety

Like sleep, Sabbath undercuts our need for control. Submitting to the physical and psychological need to shut down overnight means (among other things, and whether consciously or not) acknowledging that the world is going to get by without my input for the next (ideally) 7-8 hours. Both sleep and Sabbath – one optional, the other less so – are acts of humility. They force us to admit the limits of our indispensability, and to see the world in terms of gift and blessing instead of utility.

We hear with wearying regularity of the epidemic proportions anxiety has assumed among us. The forms and causes of this state of things are multiple, complex, and far-reaching, and the practice of Sabbath offers no glib panacea. Yet the attitudes it challenges – our quest for self-sufficiency, the lure of self-importance – are deeply implicated in the problem. Our prevailing anxiety is among other things a restlessness, and genuine rest can be a powerful means of combating it.

For Jews and for Christians, the Sabbath is a way of enacting the belief that it is God who is in control, and it is God who provides. Marva Dawn quotes a Jewish editorial on the contrast between the activity of the six days and the relinquishment of the seventh:

“For six days a week human beings are involved in the act of making, shaping, and transforming the world. So, we take one solid period of time, twenty-four hours, to change our relationship to the world – to refrain from acting upon it and, instead, to stand back and celebrate the grandeur and mystery of creation … To experience the world free from the need to interfere with it is a transformative and liberating experience.”

Sabbath requires and makes possible a relation to the world around us that does not involve tasks. In particular it targets the habit of multi-tasking, naturally revered by a culture that worships productivity. Brueggemann describes multi-tasking as “the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.” Sabbath teaches us to be more fully present where we are.

Freedom from commodity culture

If anything of the communal practice of Sabbath remains in Western societies, it tends to be a residual reduction or (more rarely) suspension of Sunday trading. The impact of this practice on most people is negligible; we may experience it as a slight inconvenience, or perhaps value it as an acknowledgment of the inconvenience involved for retail employees.

The original principle, however, has much broader implications. Sabbath enshrines an alternative to what Brueggemann calls “the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness.” The culture of commodity is not limited to the activities of working and shopping, but posits a whole system defined by the paradigm of buying and selling, competition and accumulation.

Walter Brueggemann's book on this topic is suggestively titled Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. He paints Sabbath observance not as an archaic convention but as a subversive cultural practice for the twenty-first century, concerning as it does “the maintenance of a distinct faith identity in the midst of a culture that is inhospitable to all distinct identities in its impatient reduction of all human life to the requirements of the market.” Sabbath can afford to the observant the space to recognise and to resist powerful, unchosen elements of mainstream identity.

Neighbourliness and social justice

One of the most remarkable elements of the original Sabbath command is the principle of radical equality embedded within its cadences:

“Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.” (Exodus 20:9-10)

The Israelites are not to rest at the expense of those who serve them while they rest. It is not for those who can “afford” it. The intellectual elites, the blue-collar workers, the immigrants, even the beasts of burden, all are to rest. Sabbath is not, therefore, simply an act of withdrawal, but an instrument for galvanising a society to work for a richer and fairer life together. It is a social vision, marked by peace and by mercy.

Throughout the Old Testament, and most notably in the prophets, Sabbath observance is repeatedly linked to questions of social justice. Ancient Israel is condemned again and again for neglecting both God's Sabbath and the care of the vulnerable. These failures are akin. The drift towards commodity culture, the triumph of productivity and self-aggrandisement as the governing principles of social life, make both an authentic practice of Sabbath and the creation of a generous, inclusive community less likely, and indeed, less desirable.

The pattern of seven is echoed in other places in the Old Testament law: all debts were to be cancelled every seven years, and the year of Jubilee (a once-in-a-half-century, or every seventh set of seven years, event) was to see the restoration of each family's original inheritance (portion of the land). Thus poverty and massive inequalities could not become entrenched. Brueggemann writes that:

“In this interpretive tradition, Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity. Such solidarity is imaginable and capable of performance only when the drivenness of acquisitiveness is broken. Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms.”

Brueggemann suggests that the weekly work pause, which breaks the production cycle and therefore also the anxiety cycle, redeploys that energy towards the neighbourhood. “The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighbourliness,” he explains. For modern urbanites, struggling with the isolating effects of the drive for efficiency and a lack of community, Sabbath imagines a different kind of life, together.

A point of transformation

Marva Dawn insists that the Sabbath is “not only a festival day but also a new social reality that is carried back into days one through six. People who keep the Sabbath live all seven days differently.” The act of setting one day apart from the others restores shape, rhythm, and deliberateness to what otherwise remains, in Benjamin's phrase, “homogeneous, empty time” – a succession of apparently interchangeable (and therefore in and of themselves meaningless) units.

Abraham Heschel's classic work of Jewish spirituality, The Sabbath, typifies Judaism as a religion not of space, but of time. Other ancient religions situated the divine in visible images or natural phenomena, spatial objects; but Heschel contends that “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.” “Jewish tradition claims that there is a hierarchy of moments within time,” he writes. If we fail to order our lives within time in ways that distinguish day from day, ordinary from extraordinary, feast from fast, then they may be functional, yet fall habitually short of something like fulfilment.

Christian Wiman concludes that, “To be truly alive is to feel one's ultimate existence within one's daily existence.” The disciplined, rhythmic alteration of work to rest offered by Sabbath observance permits the higher or deeper commitments it signals to permeate the rest of life, the day-to-day “sludge” that can so easily edge them out.

Reorientation within the big picture

The importance of regularly taking a step back to reassess and reformulate goals and tasks in line with whatever vision lies behind our actions is a commonplace of motivational-cum-managerial discourse. The Sabbath as religious observance aims to draw us out of the ceaseless flow of busyness in order to retrain our attention on a very specific big picture; but the weekly pause may prove useful for all, regardless of the nature of the larger vision in which we situate ourselves.

If it's about reordering our relationship to time in a way that makes us at once more conscious of it and less subject to it, Sabbath is a means of keeping the urgent from consistently trumping what we actually count as most important: to keep work from trumping relationships, or admin from trumping enjoyment, or (for the Christian) my personal kingdom from trumping the one to which I've professed allegiance.

Sabbath is meant to reflect that strange, monstrous thing – eternity. It looks backwards, to God's rescue of his people from slavery (not only at the Exodus but at the cross of Jesus); and forwards, to the future reality the Bible describes as God's “rest.” It asks the believer to reorient herself and her life to the larger reality in which she believes. It helps us to not forget God – or whatever we consider the defining reality of our lives to be.

How to stop

While Jewish communities around the world retain an unbroken tradition of ritual Sabbath-keeping, for most of us – even for observant Christians – it is a lost art. Apart from not undertaking paid work (if possible) on (perhaps) a Sunday, it is not immediately evident to most of us what is involved. What does the practice of Sabbath even look like?

The biblical commands offer very little by way of specifics. Apart from doing no “ordinary work” and a few injunctions against making fires and carrying wood, as well as a mention of “sacred assembly,” the Israelites are given freedom to rest more or less as they choose.

Sabbath-keeping, then, requires planning, creativity and some vigilance. It is not one-size-fits-all. It calls for experimentation and personalisation. Dawn suggests that “Activity that is enjoyable and freeing and not undertaken for the purpose of accomplishment … qualifies as acceptable for Sabbath time.”

For those who see gardening, for example, or writing emails, or exercise, as activities to anticipate with pleasure rather than tasks to be accomplished, those things should be celebrated and enjoyed as part of the Sabbath rest. For some, it may involve a form of “techno-Sabbath”: if email, Facebook, or general screen time has become a burden or a mode of work, then it doesn't belong. Growing numbers of people are testifying to their practice of a “secular Sabbath” of this kind. Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times, swore off his devices one day a week after realising he was a “techno-addict” and six months later wrote of how transformative the experience was: “This achievement is unlike any other in my life.”

Habitual Sabbath practitioners figure out what works and doesn't work for them. They plan for Sabbath, making space for rest by getting things done in advance. They adapt the concept of Sabbath to their circumstances; the stay-at-home parent can hardly abdicate their role for a day, but can still structure tasks and family life to distinguish one day from the others if desired, to make it “special.” They resist legalism, bowing to necessity when work impinges unavoidably on their day off, and accepting that (especially within family) individual instances of the practice will sometimes – perhaps often – fall short of its overall impact and blessing. They recognise the wisdom of taking a full day (the Jewish Sabbath occupies the time between sunsets, Friday to Saturday). Cobbling together 24 hours of “rest” throughout the week in no way equates psychologically to the rhythm of a full day on which work simply does not encroach.

Finally, Sabbath may be introspective, but is not intended to be self-focused. One of its chief reversals is its effect on relationships, banishing the spectre of efficiency and therefore much of the restiveness or superficiality from the time we spend with others. Sabbath is outward-focused, whether on family and friends, meeting with fellow believers, or God-wards. It represents good, long-tried cultural wisdom, not simply Jewish or Christian ritual; it promotes freedom, subtly reflecting the reality that humans respond well to structure, but badly to rules.

Yet from a Christian perspective, it points to that idea most famously expressed by Augustine, who prayed, “O, Lord, thou hast made us, and our spirits are restless until we rest in thee.”

Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.