Finding The Off Switch: Four Reasons I Observe Shabbat

April 10th, 2018 Posted by On Our Mind 1 comment

This terrific piece by Peter Himmelman appeared in Forbes. Peter is a musician and businessman and also the son-in-law of Bob Dylan the musical icon of the 60s:

“With the pace of technology and its demand for our attention increasing month-to-month, comes the challenge of occasionally leaving it behind. I’ve found some answers in my over thirty-year observance of Shabbat, (the Jewish Sabbath), a time when the use of technology is prohibited. While I don’t believe that the strict tenets of this observance are appropriate for all people, I am strongly convinced that many of its ideas would be helpful if they were incorporated on some level.

Technically speaking, there are thirty-nine types of labor that are prohibited on Shabbat. They include things like using money, making fire, planting, carrying things from a public to a private domain, sewing, cooking, fastening two things together, and writing. Over time, each of the thirty-nine prohibitions was extrapolated on to prohibit the use of things that weren’t in existence at the time these laws were instituted. Some examples include driving a car, which runs on a combustion engine and is a violation of the prohibition against the use of fire; and using electronics of any sort, which demands a completed circuit and is a violation of the principle of joining two things together. This last prohibition effectively renders all cell phones, computers, and televisions completely off-limits during the twenty-five hours of Shabbat.

I was recently involved in a creativity symposium in San Francisco. Among the speakers was a former senior editor at a well-known technology publication with whom I had a chance to speak about the idea of stepping back from technology, and how the rituals of Shabbat echoed a very important, if often missing, dimension of technology: our ability to shut it off. Not just to shut it off once a year, or for a few moments throughout a day, but by a regular, systematized means. He observed that the ritual of Shabbat seemed to point not to some ancient and irrelevant past, but to a decidedly postmodern view of our integration with technology.

When people talk about some thing or some idea they feel is outmoded I’ll frequently hear them say, “Seriously, it’s 2018…” (Or whatever year it happens to be.) It’s often assumed that we live in a “modern age” and that things that are not modern, such as a 3,300 year-old Jewish ritual like Shabbat observance, should be discarded, or worse, placed in the same hermetically sealed box one puts all things anachronistic; things worthy of occasional review as cultural curiosities, but certainly not as something to take seriously. Even as a kid I never could help feeling there was a flaw in this kind of thinking. Sure, technology has sped up the pace of our lives, but in terms of real change, there’s been no difference made at all in everyday human experience, in spite of all our so-called advances.

Take the delivery systems of music for example. First, there was the piano roll, then the clunky 78 played on the old Victrola, followed by the 33 and a third LP, the 45 single, the eight track, the cassette, the CD, the DAT, and most recently, digital streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Interestingly, none of these music delivery systems, no matter how sophisticated, has changed the visceral effect of music on the human spirit. At no time did any technology ever feel old-fashioned either. We never laughed at the eight-track when it came out; it wasn’t quaint, it was cutting edge. The idea of having your own music in your car at the touch of a button was revolutionary.

People also felt they were living in the modern age in 1716, and in 1116, and also in 116 BCE. They felt this way because nothing has fundamentally changed. Fathers love their daughters the same today as they did in the past, the sun was bright back in 1916 too, and it burned your eyes if you stared at it too long. The touch of a loving hand on the skin of a person in 1416 felt identical to the way it feels on your skin in 2018. The worried face of the moon still looks the same, and a cold November wind on your neck feels just like it did since time immemorial.

To say that something as central as the regulated cessation of creative effort —which is in essence, what Shabbat is about—so that one can focus on what has already been achieved, is somehow old fashion, is to miss the point. Shabbat is by nature, timeless. It cuts to the essence of what so many of us lack: a regularly recurring time of reflection.

Any good composer or painter knows that as important as it is to be immersed in the sound of the symphony he or she is working on, or to be engrossed in the images he or she is setting down on canvas, it is equally important to step away from one’s creative work and to observe with clarity and renewed objectivity just what it is that has been created. Shabbat brings with it an opportunity to step away and better see life, not as a series of compartmentalized actions, but as a unified whole. Here are a few ways the tenants of Shabbat can help you in your life.

Improve creative thinking

It’s an axiom, of physics that two things cannot occupy the same space. And just as this applies to things, it also applies to ideas. To be at our creative best we need to make an empty space through the cessation of our creative endeavors. Only by stopping our constant output can new inspirations take hold.

Slow down life’s hectic pace

As we learn to breathe more slowly in the practice of meditation, adopting the rhythms of Shabbat-time into our lives has the same beneficial tendency. To many people the world feels chaotic, out of control. Too often it seems, we are guided by demands and situations, rather than by our own volition. Shabbat is the bedrock in time that cannot be moved aside for anything other than life-threatening situations.

Improve relationships

When I got my first recording contract in 1986, I decided I would work to protect my most valuable resource. It wasn’t artistic control over what songs to record, or the power to decide what my record jackets would look like —my most valuable resource was my time.

I made it known that I would not perform on Shabbat no matter what the reason. It wasn’t as if my convictions weren’t tested. There were slots on The Tonight Show that I turned down, opportunities to be the opening act for top artists like Sting, that I waived away —all because these prospects, while good for my career, would have violated my observance of Shabbat, and as a consequence my understanding of time as something precious, something that belonged to me (and later, to my family) alone.

Shabbat is time away from iPhones and computers and errands and shopping and every conceivable distraction. We humans hunger to be heard, to be seen, and to be known, but we suffer from a paucity of attention-giving and attention-getting. Just as it’s impossible to make music without an instrument, it is impossible to create thriving relationships without making space and time for them to flourish.

Gain a more mature life perspective

As children we couldn’t help but be burdened by our unfulfilled desires. We wanted the things we wanted —immediately. Waiting for any length of time just wouldn’t do. Our immature minds were not yet sophisticated enough to realize that staving off a momentary pleasure for a longer-term gain would, in the end, bring us far more pleasure. Shabbat is about honing our sense of gratitude.

Most of us work to make a living and strive to achieve the things we desire, but we also need to feel as if we’ve come home again, come back to some midpoint. By regularly postponing our manic ascent up an assumed ladder of success, we come to see life from a broader, richer perspective.

By first finding, and then being brave enough to use the “off-switch,” we gain the sweet, and all too rare sense, of having finally arrived at our destination.”

One comment

James says:

Hi Rabbi

Thank you for these wise words.

I would like to add that having these devices on also disrupts sleep (which YHWH created as a necessity for us to recharge and heal), exposes us to all sorts of negative spiritual influences, and reduces our capacity in terms of time and energy to form meaningful relationship.

I learned all that the hard way and hope that nobody else has to.

Thank you again for passing to us all the life giving wisdom that you have distilled from Him. You’re a blessing to us all.

Warmest regards

James

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