The question in the title was the contradiction that proved to me, for much of my life, that observant Judaism was backwards. If Shabbat is about rest, why can’t I rest the way I like to? Watch tv, ride a bike, play guitar (if I ever learn to play guitar). It just seemed so archaic. Then I started to learn a little bit about it and even gave it a try.
God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th, He rested.
This notion has always bothered me. The Jewish concept of God is that He is an infinite being, with the ability to regulate the cosmos and be intimately involved in every moment of your life and everyone else’s life. All at once! It’s even been said that He’s exists outside of time. So why would He need to rest? And on some arbitrary 7th day?
As with most questions concerning when God “needs” something, the answer is usually that it’s for us. By “resting” on the 7th day, He was setting an example. When God finished creation, He finished his work. The quality of rest we’re supposed to tap into is that sense of completion.
Relaxing versus Completion.
The mentality that you are supposed to have with Shabbos is that EVERYTHING has been completed. Even our far reaching goals that we won’t finish for years. My father is a pediatric neurologist. In explaining this concept to him I said, “Dad imagine if this week you cured epilepsy. What would you do with your weekend?” The idea is to gain freedom from our worries and reconnect with our friends, family, community, and God. Now you can see why maybe you should shut your phone off.
You can’t work! Now rearrange the dining room before the lunch guests arrive.
To be clear, you can absolutely do back-breaking labor on Shabbos. The Hebrew word for work is avodah. However, what is prohibited on Shabbos are the 39 melachos. 39 categories of special work. Without getting too technical, essentially these are 39 acts that pertain to creation.
There is no doubt that human beings are distinct from any other life form on this planet. We are able to affect and change the planet in immeasurable ways. Sure, not always for the good. And yes, beavers build dams and dolphins have language, but that’s nothing compared to irrigation, microprocessors, nuclear energy, the books of Shakespeare, etc. On Shabbos, those acts of creation are supposed to cease. It may seem counter intuitive (precut toilet paper?) or extraordinarily nit-picky (I can’t double knot my shoe lace?) and sometimes downright frustrating (No umbrellas? Seriously?) but as I have started to take on the mitzvah of Shabbos little by little, I have to admit the day gets more and more special.
“Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”
There are two umbrella concepts to Shabbos. Remember it and sanctify it. Abstaining from work, prayers, doing things to keep the day holy, those all fall under the sanctification of the day. But to remember Shabbos is something that extends beyond the day itself. In order to make Shabbos as special as it can be, a fantastic tool is to look forward to it at least once each day of the week. There’s a story of a Rabbi who would go to the market on Sunday and buy the nicest fish for Shabbos. He would come back to the market on Monday and if there was a nicer fish, he’d buy that and eat Sunday’s fish that night, and so on. So perhaps consider saving that pint of Häagen-Dazs or bottle of Glenfiddich for Friday night.
It is no exaggeration to say that the means by which we live (working) can easily overwhelm our lives and even dominate it. When that happens, it is to the detriment that which our lives should be about; family, friends, connection, decency to others. And you didn’t need to read this blog post to know a day dedicated to that reconnection might be a good thing. But to give consideration to and anticipation of that day throughout the week makes Shabbos all the more powerful.
Give it a try.
I’m not saying, take on full Shabbos if you’re not ready to take on a full Shabbos. I don’t fully keep Shabbos myself. But I would suggest dedicating 3 hours on a Saturday. Shut off your phone, turn off the TV, and have a conscious reflection on all that you accomplished in the previous week. Then see how you feel.