Friday, / May 24, 2024

Make It Holy: The Uses And Abuses Of Shabbos

My grandfather did not recall the name of the first camp he was sent to. It was before Reigersfeld, before Blechhemmer, before Auschwitz. Still, he remembered well the daily routine at the camp. After being roused from their barracks early in the morning, the prisoners were given a sip of ersatz coffee, and then lined up for counting – the first of many each day. Then they grabbed their tools and set out to work after a march of several kilometers. The Germans were still ramping up wartime production, and the Jewish prisoners were forced to clear a forested area for the site of a future factory. Slave laborers, they worked twelve-hour days felling trees, hauling them off, clearing scrub, and digging ditches. At the end of the day, the same number of prisoners – dead or alive – would be marched, or carried, back to the camp. 

Once back at camp, the prisoners were given, for the first time that day, something to eat. Generally, that meant some watery soup and a bit of bread. Every two prisoners would be given a loaf of bread, a “brick,” as he called it, to split between themselves. Knowing what lay in store for them the day ahead, the Jewish prisoners would eat sparingly, leaving a chunk of bread over, so they could carry it to work in the morning and nibble on it throughout the day. Then it was back to the barracks. 

So it went for six days a week. The seventh day was different, but in a way that was almost imperceptible to my grandfather’s German guards, and perhaps to most of his fellow prisoners. Imperceptible, but extraordinary nonetheless. On Friday nights, or before leaving the barracks the next morning, my grandfather would eat all of his bread. This meant that for the rest of the day, he would have nothing left to sustain himself at work. Why? Because this way he would not have to desecrate the Shabbos by carrying anything outside – one of the thirty-nine activities prohibited on the holy day. 

Of course, the laws of Shabbos are always suspended under a threat to life. And of course, he would already be carrying his tools. But he did not want to carry anything more than necessary.


I don’t recall ever hearing this story directly from my grandfather. Instead, I came across it on video testimony he recorded for the Shoah Foundation years ago. It has stayed with me ever since. 

In so many ways, his story defies comprehension, and not just for the usual reasons. It’s not just that I can’t imagine myself in similar circumstances or convince myself I would have done the same, but that it makes no sense. 

What was the point? If he had been able to avoid taking his tools to work, then at least by finishing his bread on Friday night he would have avoided violating the Shabbos. But he was carrying something anyway.  

What was the point? Survivors of the camps, or gulags, or other forms of extreme imprisonment often describe how they managed to cling to some inner form of freedom – and to their humanity – through tiny acts of defiance. In solitary confinement as a refusenik, Natan Sharansky kept himself mentally limber by playing thousands of games of chess in his head. Artists continued to sketch and to paint in the gulags, despite the tremendous risks of engaging in such subversion. But what was gained here, aside from an empty stomach?

What was the point? And then there is the winking cipher at the center of the story: Shabbos itself. To anyone unfamiliar with such scruples, the idea of a prohibition against carrying is baffling enough, and it is just the beginning. The Day of Rest is, paradoxically, rife with such inconveniences. How can resting be such hard work?


This isn’t to say there isn’t any sense to Shabbos observance. Far from it. To the contrary, every so often an invention comes around that somehow manages to be staggeringly revolutionary and then — not more than a moment later — so utterly intuitive that we can scarcely live without it. From smartphones, to hospital sanitation, or those little spinning wheels on the bottom of your suitcase, it is hard for someone of a certain age to imagine these things ever not existing: Really? People used to just drag suitcases around? Actually, it turns out that carrying other people’s luggage was a real job for a while!

Shabbos is another perfect example. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest,” asserts Thomas Cahill in his Gifts of the Jews. Not only that, but without any obviously natural basis for the week, there wasn’t even such a thing as an independently recurring seven day cycle. It was utterly new. And yet, once introduced, who could live in a world without it? The Soviets tried to do away with it for a time, as did the French Republican Calendar, but the week could simply not be dislodged. From schools, to workplaces, to families, the institutions that shape our lives are shaped by the seven day beat of the week; of the many great innovations of Judaism, the one with the most obvious and palpable impact is surely the week – and with it, the Shabbos.

As Cahill goes on to write: “The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful.” 

Not only new, the Shabbos was also a genuinely radical proposition when it first arrived on the stage in the ancient world. A few years ago, New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz wrote a book called The Sabbath World making precisely this case. Namely, Shabbos was a “radically progressive” political institution, making “the radically egalitarian claim that everyone – men, women, children, strangers, and animals – has the right not to work. The Sabbath asserts the fundamental dignity of the human being, beyond his or her productive function.”

But Shulevitz takes things a step further. Shabbos can be described as a political institution, or for that matter as a religious, social, legal, or cultural one too. Still, she says, none of these quite capture the full meaning of the day – and its dimension of holiness.

And, like Shabbos, holiness does not fully compute. 


What does it mean that Shabbos, or holiness, doesn’t make sense?

In a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, Neil Pasricha, an author, speaker, and former Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, shared an invaluable piece of advice to readers coming up in the business world. It was a hard-won insight, earned after years spent “grind[ing] away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps.”

After settling down with a family, Pasricha was struggling with the work-life balancing act before he “finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity.” The solution was already summed up in the headline of the article: Why You Need an Untouchable Day Every Week. On these Untouchable Days, the author imagines himself as in a “bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.”

From all this, you might be forgiven for thinking that Pasricha had reinvented the wheel, and repackaged an old idea in the corporate self-improvement sheen beloved by Harvard business majors. But you’d be wrong. “Untouchable Days,” he continues, “have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding work. To share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words.” 

Instead of reinventing Shabbos, he had turned into a productivity tool. Regardless of the tool’s efficacy, and no doubt Pasricha’s program works as it is intended to, it’s easy to see that something is missing in this scheme. As the ancient adage goes, Who will watch the watchers? When do you get a break from taking a break?

Pasricha was, in his way, “making sense” of the idea of Shabbos, and simply redirecting it to productive ends. Viewing Shabbos as no more than a Day of Rest, or reducing it to its socio-political benefits, is simply an extension of the same thinking. That Shabbos observance is good for a society, or one’s family, or one’s mental health is obvious. But is that all it is? And if not, then what?


The same thinking enshrined in consulting and management schools now pervades our world. It is a worldly way of thinking, and it has made breaking free of the world ever harder.  

This might sound surprising, especially in this context. Aren’t we freer than ever, and freer to keep Shabbos than ever? In many ways, yes. We live in a time of unprecedented religious freedom. Several decades have passed since Jews in the the Former Soviet Union were being forced into factories and schools to work on Shabbos, and my grandfather’s experiences in the Holocaust are, thankfully, long behind us.

We are also freer economically. There was a time when Jews arriving in the New World were faced with what seemed like only two options: desecrate the Shabbos each week at the garment factory, or lose your job and your livelihood. But, thanks to a coalition of labor unionists and religious leaders in the ‘20s and ‘30s, we have the five-day work week to protect us against the depredations of the market as well as of the state. The vast majority of American Jews do not have to work on Saturdays anymore, and are free to spend their weekends at their own leisure.

But there are different kinds of leisure. The English writer G.K. Chesterton once counted three: “The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third (and perhaps most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing.” 

It is true that we find ourselves free to do anything in our spare time – certainly more so than in Chesterton’s day – but that third kind of freedom has become rarer and more precious than ever. Shabbos has been freed from the productivity drive, but we still fall prey to its logic. Even those of us who are not driven by sheer workaholism, or the need to hold down a second job on Saturdays, still find it difficult to ever get away from it all, even for one day a week.

It’s not that we have to work on the weekend, but that in our free time, we still find ourselves impelled to use it in a certain way. There is the sober sense of duty with which we set out to exercise. Even while exercising, we have to keep our heads occupied with the right soundtrack. Ditto for driving, taking the train, or doing the dishes. Those precious moments cannot be wasted, we tell ourselves, without a podcast playing in the background. And then of course, our phones keep their grip on our attention for every moment in between. These things might have been invented as means of convenience and leisure, but the astronomical rates of phone and social media addiction make it clear that something has gone awry. The tools of our leisure become our masters. 

I’m reminded of the Netflix executive proudly hawking his addictive video-streaming service at an industry event. “Binge-watching is great, because it puts you in control,” he declared, in an impressive feat of blissful self-contradiction. Loss of self-control is the very definition of bingeing. The same executive also said that his company’s main competitor was – not YouTube, or Amazon, or some cable company – but sleep. He cheerily added, “And we’re winning!” Of course, anyone staying up until 2:00 am to watch yet another Netflix show about the secret lives of Orthodox Jews has well and truly lost control. So yes, we have more spare time than any garment worker ever did, but somehow it isn’t exactly “free” time. 

The work drive and the leisure impulse come from different places, but they are functionally the same. They both promise to empower and emancipate, but in the end they become tyrannies all of their own. 


A ritual, as defined by some psychologists, is a formal act with some symbolic value, performed without any overt instrumental purpose. Firing a twenty-one gun salute at a funeral doesn’t do anything, per se, which is what makes it a ritual. As such, to the modern eye, rituals can seem maddeningly frivolous. They are inefficient.

Everything, everywhere, is being rationalized, streamlined, and maximized for efficiency. Companies like Instacart, AirBnb, and Uber encourage us to get more out of life, by either owning nothing or leverage everything we have to make another buck: spare time, idle cars, and empty properties. Ordering food through Postmates lets us further increase efficiency, by outsourcing our kitchens and pantries to restaurants. Sending kids to daycare allows parents to outsource child-rearing, so that both parents are free to work away from the home. 

The idea that we can get from the world by wringing it dry of its economic potential is ultimately a vulgar materialism, and it is also a lie. In the past two years, even as we have seen this world-view accelerate its way into yet more corners of our lives, its central fallacy has been dramatically exposed. That is, it makes a lot of sense to outsource your manufacturing capacity to countries with cheap labor, for example, until a global pandemic hits and borders freeze up, and you suddenly don’t have any medical supplies for your own citizens. It makes a lot of sense to build very big ships so that they can cart ever more containers around the world, but then the ship is so big that it gets stuck in the Suez Canal. It makes a lot of sense for a society to encourage both parents in every household to seek employment out of the home, but then when school is shut down or, G-d forbid, a child gets sick, suddenly they’re all out of options. A farmer who sets himself to extracting any value he can from his land will soon find himself with nothing but a worthless pile of dirt. If you focus on nothing but worldly accomplishment, you will eventually lose as much as you gain.

“The world,” says the Talmudic sage Rabbi Eliezer, “Is like a canopy, encompassed on every side, but the north.” It’s as if the world itself announces its incompleteness to us, as if to say that worldliness is never enough. Nothing can ever be made perfectly smooth, and the wrinkles never entirely go away. As a certain poet once put it, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

The problem with maximizing everything for utility is that it ends up stretching life too thin. We all need a little slack in our lives, some wriggle room for when things don’t work out, a place to cool off when you start to overheat. A system that is too sleek, too primed for efficiency, becomes unreliable, fragile, and dangerous. In fact, engineers will deliberately introduce redundancies and overlapping safety-mechanisms – inefficiencies, in other words – into planes and powerplants so that when one fails, there will be a back-up. 

This might sound like another attempt to rationalize Shabbos, but it’s more than that. Ultimately, the day of Shabbos offers much more than just a safety valve for the pressures of the week. It’s a means of transcending them entirely. It’s not a day of time off, but a day out of time, a time out of mind. It’s a chance to break free. To separate ourselves. Not only from our jobs and our social media personae, our news notifications, emails, infinite scrolls, and our phones, but from an altogether worldly way of thinking. Every Friday evening, the Kabbalists tell us, the world rises up, as if returning to its source – and we are given the chance to ascend with it. This is what it means to be holy.


Now, contra Chesterton and the precious leisure of doing nothing, according to Judaism, a day dawdled away isn’t an ideal way to spend Shabbos. As it is said in the Book of Job, adam l’amal yulad, “Man was born to toil.”

In his book Shabbat Shalom: A Renewed Encounter with the Sabbath, Israeli rabbi Pinchas Peli describes a negative and positive concept of rest. The Torah tells us that after creating the world in six days, G-d “ceased and rested,” shavat vayinafash, on the seventh day. Peli explains that shevita, or cessation, refers to the passive desistance from work, whereas nofesh “signifies another form of leisure.” The term is also related to the word nefesh, meaning “soul.” Thus, on Shabbos, we direct our creative abilities away from nature, and towards ourselves. Whether or not an activity is prohibited or approved on Shabbos does not “lie in the fact of creativity, but in the object of one’s creative powers: whether directed to . . . the inner world or the outer world.”

Of course, the inner world does not disappear during the week. As Jews, we need to be mindful of the soul from Sunday to Friday as well. Yet even the inner-world activity is different on Shabbos than during the week. 

In a classic discourse in his Likutei Torah, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi illuminates these two modes of divine service with a brilliant light. There are, he says, two dimensions to the Jewish relationship with G-d.  Namely, that of a servant and that of a child. One is signified by the name Jacob and the other by Israel:

“For all the six days of the week, just as one is occupied in physical labor, like plowing, planting, and reaping, the same is true of one’s service of G-d in prayer… it must be accompanied by the exertion of spirit and flesh, to intellectually generate a love and awe of G-d, and to drive out any foreign desires from his heart . . . by waging war against one’s Evil Inclination”

This is the sturm und drang of the six day grind. All this, he says, is captured in the term, “My servant Jacob.” The drive to productivity, to achieve dominion over time and space, and to conquer the world is paralleled by the struggle for spiritual self-mastery. Developing a consciousness of the divine in the process of prayer is hard work, as he explains at length. But then he continues:

“But on Shabbos the verse [in Psalms describing when King David feigned insanity to escape the Philistines] applies: “‘He disguised his sanity and then [the Philistine king] drove him out and he departed.’ Darkness is so thoroughly transformed to light that there is only rest [menucha], without any labor at all.”

On Shabbos, there’s no fighting with the world because there’s nothing left to struggle with. As in the story of King David, we “change the mind” of the Evil Inclination, so that it is left utterly transformed and directed only to good. 

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s choice of textual reference here is interesting, as if to suggest a connection between unreason and transcendence. Every Shabbos, the world ascends. And to hitch a ride, you need only to turn off your phone. 

Leave the world behind for a day, and, with it, its worldly ways — that churning ambition and the desire to maximize and rationalize. On Shabbos, you don’t need to fight to discover the divine, but only to accept it. We leave the world to find G-d, so that we can realize He was there all along. 

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