On Shabbos, The New Labor Pains

On Shabbos, The New Labor Pains

Recently, my 20-month-old son asked for cookies for breakfast. “No,” I said, “it’s not time for cookies.” “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s Shabbat.” (It was in fact, a Tuesday). How had he concluded — already (!!!) — that Shabbat was a day of no? I had felt relatively comfortable that Shabbat in our house was more a day of togetherness and play. But once again, he knew better. It made me think, not for the first time, about how to balance observing Shabbat in its traditional form, with ensuring that Shabbat is a day we all appreciate and enjoy.

In mulling over this question, it occurred to me that the observance of Shabbat has flipped: where it once was about abstaining from productive work, it now seems to be about abstaining from frivolous play. In the Torah, general categories of work are forbidden and the rabbis then derived “the 39 acts of labor” from Moses’ description of how to build the mishkan, or tabernacle. When Moses mentions Shabbat in Deuteronomy, he says, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there.” Shabbat was a sanctuary from the hard, physical labor of the week.

I can see where a day off from plowing the fields and chopping wood once felt like a well-deserved break. Today, though, I most feel the implications of Shabbat in refraining from using technology, and I’ve noticed there is a whole new language to encourage Shabbat observance. It’s about slowing down, unplugging, connecting face to face. I get it. I’m on board. It is still about tuning out the pulls of the workaday world and yet, now, Shabbat is more about distracting oneself from the exciting world around us than it is about the excitement of a day without work. And so I suppose my question is two-fold: Do we gain the same thing from a day off of play as we did from a day off of work? And is it even realistic, as we become evermore technologically glutted, to envision a day free of all technology (see: half-Shabbos)?

I don’t have the answers to either question. I can see that in tamping down our need for productivity, we allow for the humility of recognizing our place in the great wide world; that we can better appreciate that world around us when we’re not viewing it through the prism of our work, and that just in clearing out the day-to-day details of our lives, we make space for the possibility of the sacred. Is our experience in taking a day off from the rat race the same experience as a laborer being given a day of rest? Likely not. But there is something quite nice about knowing that even if what we’re refraining from is different, what we’re engaging in is just the same.

Shabbat has traditionally been a time when people get together with friends, sharing Shabbat meals, and in my own youth, children playing in each other’s backyards all afternoon. Now, though, it seems teenagers feel cut off from their friends on a Shabbat afternoon without texting and status updating and the like. When I was a child, my father would itch for Friday night’s baseball scores, and might ask a passerby for news. My husband, who generally has his BlackBerry in his hand as a second thumb, itches for the constant news feed and updates he is used to receiving minute by minute.

So is Shabbat without technology sustainable? Technology sabbaticals are all the rage these days. There was the recent memoir of a woman who unplugged her teenage children for six months (“The Winter of Our Disconnect”) and there are countless blogs about families’ attempts at “technology fasting.” These are temporary fixes, not lifelong practices. And embedded in all this exalting of technology fasts is the truth of just how difficult it’s become to disengage from our 24-hour gadget gluttony.

I know that even if in our house, not every rabbinic rule is followed to the letter, the feeling of waking up on Shabbat, and intuitively knowing that the rhythm of the day is fundamentally different, is one I hope our children will treasure. So I’m hoping we can hang on to the day of rest — individually and collectively. That in our house, at least, we choose from a menu of shul and/or prayer, family and/or friends, talking and/or playing that looks different from the other days of the week. Whether or not we make our day about spiritual connection, it seems spiritually sustaining to keep our everyday concerns at bay for a fraction of the week. I’m not sure I’ll be successful, but I hope our children see the benefits of a day without, and feel it as gift, instead. Perhaps it will even be a day with cookies for breakfast.

Talia R. Cohen is a freelance editor and writer. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and three children.

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