Why the Focused Rest of Shabbat is Important

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 |  Michael Berg  

Rest and action are two poles of existence. Whatever one is doing, one is either resting or exerting oneself. Exertion complements rest and rest complements exertion as day complements night and night complements day. The reader knows from universal experience, that exercise leads to a deeper sleep and that without resting, one cannot have the energy to act. Therefore, the question of primary importance, as with all pairs of opposites, is the question of balance.

The issue of balance between work and rest is epitomized in the difference between the Hebrew and the Greek approaches to time and place.

In Homer’s epics, the heroes fight battles and travel on voyages. The direction of activity starts from home and extends outward to the farthest reaches of the Earth.

In the case of the ancient Hebrews, their texts describe the conquest of a homeland and its settlement. The direction of activity is inwards. The goal is to return to the pre-fallen state of man wherein man lived in a garden and the point of life was to “settle it and guard it.” The ultimate messianic vision is that “every man would sit under his vine and under his fig tree.” The ultimate goal is to arrive at a state of tranquility wherein movement is unnecessary and time is of no consequence.

The goal of technology is to quicken movement, to go faster and farther, in less time and with less effort. Let us take a step back and look at the expectations for modern technology and how it would help us. Calculators were meant to replace slower and more tedious forms of computation. Cars and planes were invented to save the time and effort of lugging baggage and one’s self to various locations. In these respects, technology has succeeded.

However, everyone expected that technology would lead to shorter workweeks, but it has not. Ever since Henry Ford came up with the forty-hour work-week, nothing in North America has changed. Instead, technology has become invasive, eliminating the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, thereby increasing the length of the work-week to allow it to reach to within one’s private life.

Home is no longer a refuge from work and the time in our private lives has decreased.

The reason for this failure of technology to save time is that focusing on action will not increase rest. No matter how much one focuses on getting things done, there will always be more to do. In fact, the more one focuses on getting things done, the more things one finds to do!

The only solution is to focus on rest. A focused rest is different than a rest that is merely a gap between two activities. Just as it takes focus to be active, it takes focus to properly rest. It also takes an appreciation for rest. We must set aside time to rest, to just be and to not achieve. The key is in setting aside time both for rest and activity; and in this, the Hebrew approach is worthy of emulation.

As opposed to the Ancient Greeks, who had no day of rest, the Hebrews set aside a day for focused rest, the Sabbath. This day is not considered a break from the week, but the purpose of the week! On this day one does not merely take time off, but instead actively focuses on creating an atmosphere of rest. Electronic devices are completely forbidden by Orthodox Judaism to be used on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath also exists in Christianity, the premier child of both Greek and Hebrew civilization that has inherited practice and ideology from both. In abandoning religion, western society has abandoned its Hebrew heritage to exclusively focus on continuing the Hellenic pursuit of perpetual advancement.

Ancient Greece tired itself out and vanished. The Hebrews are still here. Was tranquility the secret for their longevity? Perhaps it was. Perhaps the wise reader would like to entertain the thought of a day without technology once a week — a day of tranquility.

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