Friday, March 16, 2007

Contemporary Sabbath For Everyone

A version of this piece appears in Contented Baby this month.



Last Sunday in the lift of my building I met another mother carrying 5 bags of shopping, and she muttered greyly, ‘It’s just endless, isn’t it?’ I knew what she meant, but actually I don't feel that way anymore, because of my new practice of observing a contemporary Sabbath.

At sundown on Saturdays I turn off the computer, the modem, the router, the Telewest box, the washing machine, the oven and even the lights. I light a few candles and, once my son is in bed, climb into a pre-prepared bath. Not a single humming machine in earshot. A deep calm wells up in my home. And the next day I have time for my son, pure time in which to laugh and nurture our relationship. Absolute bliss.

A deep calm wells up in my home. I have time, pure time in which to laugh and nurture my relationships.


‘Learn to rest,’ was what deep green environmentalist Satish Kumar of Resurgence Magazine (http://www.resurgence.org/) singled out as the most vital thing we could do for the environment. If we all stopped rushing about relentlessly and just once a week gave ourselves and our machines a day of rest, then we would consume less and the earth would have time to regenerate itself. This idea of a weekly “machinery fast” resonated with my extremely lazy nature and stuck with me as a vital and tangible way in which I could contribute to my environment, myself and my family.

Abstaining is not my strong point. I am a rather lax Roman Catholic with healthy appetites. But I find that the valuable time that I need to spend with my son is being sucked into chores. And in as little as ten years according to one estimate, London could be submerged under 200 foot of water. The urgency of climate change cannot be understated. Besides, this fast is not about abstaining, it's about making room for the best things in life.

So, on Saturday evening I try to turn off all the machinery. I set the oven and minimal heating on a timer. Persuading my au pair to go without internet access for 24 hours is tricky. With much negotiation I coax her to switch off the wireless modem. In the morning instead of shopping or preparing lunch my son, Leo, and I haul out the trains and build a city together.
Having a day of rest and nurturing family time is not easy. The first time I tried it was unfortunately considerably undermined by the fact that Leo came down with a sick bug. Showing extraordinary talent my poor son managed to be sick all over three sets of bedlinen! There was an emergency sheet washing marathon and I’m afraid the normally unused tumble dryer was called upon more than once.

‘On Shabbat we stop creating, it is a day of treading lightly upon the world.


Clearly I needed some advice. I called glamorous journalist and orthodox Jewess, Claire Adler. She explained that the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) starts at sundown and lasts until sundown the following day, or until you can see three stars in the sky. ‘On Shabbat we stop creating, it is a day of treading lightly upon the world. From Friday evening to Saturday evening it is forbidden to cook anything, turn lights on, drive, work or even talk about work. Instead the time is spent eating delicious food, going to synagogue and gathering with friends. The oven, the lights, the heating and the hot plate can all be set to timer so that nothing is actually activated on Shabbat. This is partly why orthodox Jews choose to live in close knit communities, so that they can visit one another on a Saturday. ‘Forcing yourself to stop working is so powerful,’ she explained, ‘It’s really a wonderful day. We have a saying that “the retribution for not keeping the Sabbath is not keeping the Sabbath”. If you don’t exploit that opportunity then one day rolls into the next and you have just missed out.’

But how does this work for a family? I spoke to Oriol Gershlick, an Orthodox Jewish psychologist and mother of three, to understand how she experiences the Sabbath.
‘Very relaxingly,’ she smiled. ‘The Fourth commandment says that “six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be for God.” I became aware as a teenager that there is more to life than just the everyday, that there is both physicality and spirituality. Observing the Sabbath is about nourishing both my body and my soul, getting in touch with what really matters and transcending the ordinary.’

It takes Oriol around two hours to prepare for the Sabbath on Friday afternoon. She prepares all her meals in advance, makes sure all the shopping is done and switches everything off. She prepares an urn with boiling water and puts the lights on a timer. Then traditionally the wife lights candles to usher in the Sabbath and the husband makes a blessing over sweet wine to symbolise joy and celebration and to sanctify the day. ‘We all need time to recoup and to nurture our marriage and family. Relationships are about give and give, and we need a day when we can bond and have time to be together.’ One of the particularly appealing laws of Shabbat is that husbands and wives are supposed to make sure they consummate their union on Friday night!

One of the particularly appealing laws of Shabbat is that husbands and wives are supposed to make sure they consummate their union on Friday night!


Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone convert to Judaism, nor am I saying that this is the single solution to all our climate change challenges. Personally I think the concept of putting the lights on the timer is going a bit far, (‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ after all) but I do think there is a lot of wisdom in this. Oriol describes how she plays with the children in the morning, then her husband returns from synagogue around 9.45am and takes the children to the park. She meanwhile has a nap for a couple of hours. At lunchtime they take the lunch out of the oven, set the special Shabbat table and sing. Her husband dances round the table singing special songs with the children. ‘It has the children giggling and they learnt very quickly to say “Amen” and “more challa” – meaning more special bread’. There is no shopping, no errands – they are just home and they know that mummy and daddy will play with them’. After lunch they will pop over to play with the neighbours.

Shabbat has special food, including a kind of stew called ‘chulent’. This will cook slowly in the oven until lunchtime on Saturday. ‘Or I make roast chicken, chocolate cake, salad and roast potatoes,’ suggests Oriol.

At the end of Shabbat Jewish people make ‘havdalah’ to mark the difference between the sacred and non sacred. They use wine to sanctify, light and besamim, spices, to comfort the soul at the loss of Shabbat. These are also said to give them strength for the week ahead as it is said that they have an extra soul at Shabbat and lose it at Shabbat’s departure.

What we don’t want is a numbingly boring Victorian style Sunday which our children dread. This should be a happy day, not a regimented day – a special day that works for your family – a contemporary Sabbath. The aim is to have a day where I do no work and spend ‘quality time’ with my family that does not involve machinery, electricity, shopping or travelling.

In the novel ‘Disobedience’ Naomi Alderman comments on the ‘heart of the matter [of the Jewish Sabbath]. For if we cannot be distracted by our actions, our creation, we must, at last, come to ourselves… Shabbat draws us back to ourselves. Shabbat presents us with all we have achieved, but nothing more. Shabbat asks, quietly but insistently, who we are. And Shabbat will not relieve us if we should have no answer.’

For if we cannot be distracted by our actions, our creation, we must, at last, come to ourselves… Shabbat draws us back to ourselves. Shabbat presents us with all we have achieved, but nothing more. Shabbat asks, quietly but insistently, who we are. And Shabbat will not relieve us if we should have no answer.’


I was impressed by the unity that the physical and spiritual realms have in Judaism. Roman Catholicism has been very damaged by gnostic ideas about shunning the physical and becoming entirely spiritual, whereas our true heritage lies in finding God in this world. We worship an incarnate God, Godhead made human, the supreme union of the sacred with reality. Love comes to find us in our daily reality. How beautiful that it took my Orthodox Jewish friend to bring me back to the heart of Christianity.

The following Sunday I tried again. One hour before sunset I ran around tidying up and getting ready for my quiet day. It was fun to try to get everything out of the way before sundown. It had been a busy week and I hadn’t managed to organise lunch, but I went for a walk in the local park and serendipitously bumped into friends who I had lunch with. I try not to go to restaurants as that is making work for someone else, and actually it feels a bit hectic, but I don’t take a stand on it. Having no husband, I often use the evening time to have a good rest and read or meditate. The next day I usually find I’m full of enthusiasm and verve for the day. Because I know that it happens once a week I don’t mind working harder the rest of the week – it gives me something to hold on to. The financial saving of switching off all my machines is at least £200 a year using the Good Energy http://www.good-energy.co.uk/ tariff.

The financial saving of switching off all my machines is at least £200 a year using the Good Energy tariff.


Observing a contemporary Sabbath can be whatever you want it to be. You don’t have to be Jewish – or Catholic – to adapt this to your own needs. Committing to a day of rest once a week takes quite some preparation and determination to sustain it. But my three year old son, Leo now says joyfully ‘It’s Sunday!’ He seems to become lighter, freer on Sundays – perhaps because when he sees mummy not working he gets the message that life is not all about grind. The day takes on a contemplative rhythm of its own. And I find that as I continue I become increasingly centred and inspired. I know what I am working for, so I am far more productive on the other days of the week. Perhaps creation enjoys it too.

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