Several years ago, I went to a folk song festival in Philadelphia. Many of the singers sang labor songs of the 1930s, civil rights songs of the 1960s, and peace songs of many decades. The audience sang along, nostalgia strong in the air. Then Charlie King began singing a song with the refrain, “What ever happened to the eight-hour day? When did they take it away? . . . When did we give it away?”
Then the audience roared with passion, not nostalgia. This was about our own lives, not something from the past. I was startled. Suddenly I saw that my own sense of hyper-overwork, of teetering on the edge of burnout, was not mine alone. And suddenly I saw that everything I had learned about the joys of Sabbath were not just for lighting private Jewish candles at the dinner table and chanting private Torah in the synagogue.
I began to talk with others, especially with scholars who have studied overwork as a growing pressure in American society and people whose religious and spiritual traditions call for time to reflect, to be calm, to refrain from Doing and Making in order to Be and to Love. Out of those discussions came an effort that brought Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians, and spiritually rooted “secular” intellectuals together to redress the rhythms of work-time and time for family, community, the Spirit. By freeing time, we thought, we could help free people.
Free time. Not just through the ancient practice of the Sabbath—but also through new ways, fitting to an industrial/informational economy, of pausing from overwork and overstress.
There are deep human needs for rest and reflection, for family time and community time. But economic and cultural pressures are grinding those deep human needs underfoot.
For all the religious traditions that take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously, there is a teaching we call Shabbat. (The word is usually translated into English as “Sabbath,” and comes from the Hebrew verb for pausing or ceasing.)
In Exodus 20:8-11, the reason given for the Sabbath is to recall Creation; in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, it is to free all of us from slavery. In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is taught that these seemingly separate meanings are, in fact, one. Meditate on them, and we can see them that way.
And we are taught not only the seventh-day Shabbat: there are also the seventh year and the seven-times-seven-plus-one year, the 50th year, the Jubilee.
In the seventh year, the land must be allowed to catch its breath and rest, to make a Shabbat for God, the Breath of Life. Since nearly everyone in ancient Israel was a shepherd or a farmer, this meant that almost the whole society rested. Since no one was giving orders and no one was obeying them, hierarchies of bosses and workers vanished.
In this year-long Shabbat, even debt—the frozen form of stored-up hierarchy—was annulled. Those who because of poverty had been forced to borrow money were released from the need to repay; those who out of wealth had been pressed into lending were released from the need to collect.
And in the 50th year, the land could breathe freely once again, and not be worked. All land was redistributed in equally productive shares, clan by clan, as it had originally been held (Leviticus 25 and 26: 34-35, 43-45; Deuteronomy 15: 1-18). This year was called “yovel,” usually rendered in English as the “Jubilee.”
These year-long Jubilee observances that the Bible calls “shabbat shabbaton,” “Sabbath to the Sabbatical power,” or “deeply restful rest” are times of enacting social justice and times of freeing the earth from human exploitation. They are times of release from attachments and habits, addictions and idolatries.
Indeed, in these socially revolutionary passages of Torah, the text never uses the word “tzedek”—justice—but instead the words “shmitah” and “dror,” which mean “release,” what Buddhists today call “non-attachment.” The deepest root of social justice, according to these biblical passages, is the profoundly restful experience of abandoning control over others and over the earth. And conversely, the deepest meditation intended to free us from our egos cannot be experienced so long as we are egotistically bossing other human beings or the planet.
The tradition of Shabbat does not teach that this restfulness and utter non-attachment is the only worthy path to walk. Rather, the tradition is rooted in an earthy sense of sacred work as well as sacred rest. Indeed, the tradition teaches a rhythm, a spiral of Doing and Being in which the next stage of Doing is always higher, deeper, because a time of Being has preceded it, and in which we can bring a fuller, more whole self to the Being because we have Done more in the meantime. In which both Doing and Being are more holy because we have integrated them into a balanced life-path.
According to Evan Eisenberg's book The Ecology of Eden, this rhythm of Shabbat may have emerged from an effort of Western Semitic communities to cope with the emergence of mono-crop agriculture in the Sumerian empire. Semitic small hill-farmers, shepherds, and nomads had to face the new high-efficiency agriculture with its emphasis on population growth, ownership, and armies.
The question was, what should the communities of Canaan do? They could ignore the new efficiency —and go under. They could imitate it—and disappear. Or they could learn what was valuable, Godly, within it, and absorb that into their own lives in ways that kept their culture both sacred and distinctive.
So one year out of every seven, they pretended to become hunters and gatherers again. They would eat only what grew freely from an uncultivated land. They reaffirmed their age-old teaching that God alone, and no human being, owned the land. They came through this crisis of profound challenge to their sacred life-path changed—but intact as a people whose Sabbatical restfulness was precisely their sign of covenant with God.
In the last century, all traditional communities on Planet Earth have been living through an analogous crisis. The great leap in economic efficiency and military mastery that came with modernity played the same role in shattering Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism that Sumerian efficiency and power played in the Western Semitic communities.
Thus it is not surprising that just as we realize we are being swamped by the new Global Gobble of human communities and the Earth itself, just as the Nazi Holocaust, the H-Bomb, sweatshops, and the burning of the Amazon basin, the privatization of water supplies, and global warming come to pass, the need for rest, reflection, calm, comes back into our consciousness.
In 1951, in the aftermath of those grotesque mockeries of Making—the Holocaust and Hiroshima—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who later marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. against racism and the Vietnam War) wrote in his book The Sabbath:
“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, ... on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol ... a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity's] progress than the Sabbath?”
Christianity, Islam, and Rabbinic Judaism all reinterpreted these biblical teachings in their own ways. But all of them, as well as Buddhism and perhaps all the world's other spiritual traditions, taught the necessity of periodically, rhythmically calming one's self for inward reflection, for time to Love and time to Be.