The Sabbath: An Ancient Vehicle for Social Progress | Sojourners

The Sabbath: An Ancient Vehicle for Social Progress

We live in an oppressive age where there are few potential breaks from the enormous demands of surviving in our rapid-paced global economy. As the demand for more products delivered at a quicker, more insatiable pace becomes normalized, workers are more susceptible to oppression, animals are more easily abused, the land is mistreated, and leisure time rarely goes towards self-nourishment or reflection. All these factors lend themselves to an unhealthy workforce and, looking more broadly, a sick society. This is where the Sabbath comes in. The Sabbath acts as the great adjuster of temporal and intangible time.

In this way, the Sabbath is about labor law: One may not work one’s worker one day a week.

The Sabbath is about animal welfare: One may not work their animal one day a week.

The Sabbath is about environmental justice: One may not work the land one day a week.

The Sabbath is about taking care of one’s inner being: One must refrain from working themselves one day a week to recharge for the next six.

Today, lamentably, many progressives do not think to turn toward this biblical prescription in their efforts to advance society. Maybe due to a lack of interest in aspects of religion in society, progressives often overlook the benefits derived from the Sabbath.

For those that feel the Sabbath is solely a religious imperative, I would caution against such a sentiment. One doesn’t have to be religious to embrace the principles that the Sabbath offers. Taking a day to shut off digital and worldly distractions is a gift. It is an ethical enterprise, one that is sorely needed in our time. Political thinker Michael Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, wrote in his book, S pheres Of Justice: A Defense Of Pluralism And Equality, about the vitality of a day set aside for rest and growth: “Sabbath rest is more egalitarian than [a] vacation because it can’t be purchased: it is the one thing that money can’t buy. It is enjoined for everyone, enjoyed by everyone.”

Furthermore, consider the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on this topic. In his book The Sabbath, written more than 65 years ago, he wrote:

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… is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?

So then, what are the benefits of observing a sabbath in a mostly secular society? At its core, the Sabbath is about protecting the rights of workers. Employers may not mandate work seven days a week; logically, one day must be free of work. Laws banning work — and related activities — on the Sabbath are nearly as old as the English colonies in America. Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts and the Virginia colonies passed laws as early as the 1620s outlawing commercial activities on the Sabbath, followed by other colonies as they joined the nascent American territory. Though these statutes grew steadily less prevalent and less enforced after the American Revolution, some persisted. In the early 19th century, Calvinist New Yorkers literally put chains across their streets to prevent business and travel on the Sabbath.

In the 20th century, after years of hard-fought struggle, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a minimum wage, overtime pay, and maximum hours for most full-time workers, although it did not specifically ban work on the Sabbath. Some states, such as New York, state that employers must give their employees "twenty-four consecutive hours of rest in any calendar week," while elsewhere it is made clear that such protection is only offered to full-time workers. In California an exception is made if a job would usually require working more than six days in a row, as long as time off reached an equivalent of one day in seven. Laws banning work on the Sabbath, called "blue laws" (first used in 1762), became popular again by the 1960s, when 34 states had blue laws; today, only Bergen County, N.J., keeps a blue law on the books.

This is all pretty recent and still evolving. Yet, thousands of years ago, the Bible already came and taught that we may not work our worker, our animal, our land, or even ourselves for one day a week.

In our modern lives, each of us should feel challenged to embrace a sabbath where we do not work, where we do not employ others, and where we refrain from the pressures of consumer capitalism. I am, of course, not suggesting that everyone follow the strictures that I do as an Orthodox rabbi. From Friday night until the following Saturday evening, I cease all use of cars, phone, or any electricity at all; my work life immediately ceases. I understand that completely turning off all electronic usage would be difficult cessation for many people without preparation. What I am proposing, instead, is that we can turn off all of our technology and use that time to talk with family and friends, to read and learn, to pray and meditate. We can build commitment to one another and reflect upon our lives. We can become more intellectually and spiritually creative. We could focus on cultivating positivity and shutting out toxicity. Those of us who observe the Sabbath religiously could learn a lot from new ways that some might come to observe it more secularly.

Dedicating one day a week to refrain from activity will not solve all the problems found in society, but it may give everyone a deserved respite from the incessant stresses of the world. Including a regular day of pause and reflection, perhaps, will have an effect on our outlook during the other six days of our busy, productive weeks.