2018: Let’s Get Back a Shabbat

Once upon a time people worked during the week and rested on the weekend. Most businesses closed. Holidays were dedicated to worship, family, friends, and, for some, culture. Sociologists, especially communitarians like myself, saw a great importance in maintaining a work- and commerce-free space. They pointed out that during the week we stray from the moral codes and values that guide our lives. We are trying to get work done, make deals, move ahead. These activities tempt us to cut corners, to put self-interest above concern for others and the common good. Weekends and holidays are supposed to be the occasions when we rededicate ourselves to what is right, and when we reconnect with each other as full-fledged human beings rather than as dealmakers or bosses and employees—an essential element of human flourishing. This is what happens in places of worship, family gatherings, and community activities.

For decades now the ‘secular’ world of weekdays has invaded the world of holidays and weekends. Today many of us are addicted to the inbox, checking and responding to emails, often work-related. And although in earlier days some brought a briefcase full of work home, now with a click you are, in effect, in your office, doing work. Once upon a time banks and stock exchanges closed. Now you can get cash and make deposits at every other corner, and trade stocks anytime somewhere in the world. Despite laws limiting telemarketing, the weekend is disrupted by their attempts to ensnare us. And Uber and Airbnb are making it all too easy to turn our leisure time into work and money-making time, cutting further into the time left for value-reinforcing, relationship-building activities. One may say that you meet a lot of interesting people when you drive them about or host them in your spare rooms. However, most times these are superficial, fleeting encounters that provide no substitute for hanging out with friends, throwing a ball with the kids, or joining a squad of volunteer fire fighters or Emergency Medical Technicians.

To recapture a Shabbat is an easy New Year’s resolution to make, but a surprisingly difficult one to live up to. One best starts with one day—be it Saturday, Sunday, or Friday; going cold turkey for a whole weekend may defeat most of us who are not particularly strong characters. It helps to let it be known to your colleagues, friends and family that you are not responding to emails (and, if you are really gung ho, to phone calls), on your Shabbat. (France passed a law that prohibits employers from emailing employees in off hours. Requiring most businesses to close on Sunday is under study. However, the American way leans more toward self-regulation than to another government decree.) Giving up on the extra income Uber or Airbnb provides during weekends and holidays may be particularly challenging. Some may prefer to start more modestly by, say, recapturing only holidays but not weekends, or—only evenings, once the sun sets. And one best be sure to fill the suddenly empty spaces with activities that are meaningful and nurturing, like inviting over for a meal your favorite relatives or going out with friends. It takes time to reacquire the joy of reading a book for those who have lost it. Particularly valuable these days is turning off the news.

This piece was previously published in The National Interest.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at the George Washington University and most recently the author of Happiness is the Wrong Metric (2018, Springer Science). For more discussion, see We Are What We Celebrate (2004, NYU Press).

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