A Day Out of Time

One day offline out of seven is a welcome respite – an ancient, timeless blessing.

I never set out to be as much of a renegade or countercultural iconoclast in the following regard as I later ended up feeling when explaining to people my practice of leading an offline existence from sundown on Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night.

I grew up with Shabbat. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of ‘racing the sun home,’ as my mother would say when I was little, to set the table for Friday dinner and light Sabbath candles.

The ancient rabbinic Sages, we are told, used to say to one another on the evening of the Sabbath, “Come, let us go to meet the Bride, the Queen!” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119b)

It dates me to say that when I later developed and refined my own personal Shabbat choices, while at college – deciding, for example, to refrain from turning on lights and other electric devices – I was not at the time opting out of so large a part of the world for the day as the Internet swiftly became. I was not knowingly deciding on a 25-hour Sabbath from the constant on-call, not to say on-a-digital-leash status that comes with the incessant pings and updates of today’s throughly computerized world. It would, doubtless, have been a harder choice to make back then had so much of life been online – but I am so glad that this is the outcome.

“Better is a handful of quietness than both hands full of toil and striving after wind,” says Ecclesiastes (4:6) in a verse our Talmudic sages not surprisingly adopt in speaking of the special tranquility of the Sabbath day.

Today, when I explain that, no, I really don’t check email on Shabbat, for example, I sometimes feel I may as well be saying that I spend the day on the Moon. The frequently incredulous reactions befit the behavior of some kind of lunatic. How can one manage without such essential technology?

Rereading our scriptural portion for this week, it strikes me our ancient ancestors must have been regarded as making a choice every bit as outlandish. They must have been seen as opting out of conveniences every bit as essential in their adherence to the precept “You shall kindle no fire, in any of your dwellings, on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3) How, their neighbors must have wondered, can one manage without such essential technology?

There is a distinctive atmosphere to a home with lights set on Friday before sundown for the Sabbath. A glance around such a home takes in pools of light reflecting mindful decisions made ahead of time – the glow of a lamp beside a reading chair, a nightlight in the hallway, radiance surrounding the dining room table – and some parts of the dwelling, more workaday, are not exactly out of bounds but clearly out of use and mind for the duration.

The Talmudic rabbi Rav Hamnuna taught that one who, in sanctifying the Sabbath day, recites the biblical words, “Then the heavens and the earth were finished and all their host, and God rested on the Sabbath day” (Genesis 2:1-2) is as though participating with the Eternal One in the completion of the world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119b)

I remember very distinctly the confidence with which a college friend, as we found ourselves walking in her parents’ nearby neighborhood on a Shabat afternoon, said that of course we could and should drop in unannounced for a visit and a lavish snack – her quizzical reaction to the notion that it could conceivably be otherwise.

Rabbah the son of Rav Huna once visited the home of Rabbah the son of Rav Nachman on the Sabbath and was offered delicious treats. “Did you know I was coming?” he asked. “Are you a more special guest than the Sabbath herself?” his host inquired in reply. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119a)

“If two people brushed by one another on a thoroughfare, one running and one walking, and one injured the other – Issi bar Yehudah says the one running is liable because his behavior is unusual, but he concedes that if this happens on the eve of the Sabbath the one running is not liable, since hurrying at that time is customary.” (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 32a)

My doctoral supervisor at Columbia, Professor David Weiss Halivni – well known among his colleagues in the Religion Department as having been a Talmudic prodigy in his childhood before the Holocaust – once was hurrying along the sidewalk of Broadway on a Friday close to sundown, when in his haste he nearly collided with a colleague, a teacher of a different tradition. “What’s the hurry, David? Where’s the fire?” the other scholar inquired. My teacher explained that he was rushing to the synagogue for Sabbath evening services.

“A man like you?” the fellow professor guffawed, “Do you suppose they’re going to do something different this week that you’ve never seen before?”

“That’s not it,” Professor Halivni replied, and in an answer that instantly became legendary in the department, he explained, “I’m hurrying because it’s going to be the same.”

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