If I ruled the world I would resign immediately. It’s hard enough, individually and collectively, to rule ourselves, let alone others. But if offered an hour before I resigned I would enact one institution that has the power to transform the world. It’s called the Sabbath.
The idea of a weekly day of collective rest was unprecedented in the ancient world. Months and years are natural ways of structuring time, based respectively on the appearance of the moon and the sun. But the seven day week corresponds to nothing in nature; nor does a day of rest.
The Greeks and Romans could not understand the Sabbath at all. They wrote that the Jews kept it because they were lazy. The interesting fact is that within a relatively short space of time after making that judgment, Greece, and later Rome, declined and fell. Without institutionalized rest, civilizations, like individuals, eventually suffer from burnout.
Originally the Sabbath was conceived as a way of limiting slavery. One day a week, masters could not make their servants work. For orthodox Jews today the Sabbath is a liberation from other kinds of slavery. Imagine a day without texts, tweets, emails or phone calls, without television, computers or electronic games, a day without the pressures of a consumer society, without cars, traffic, planes, noise and pollution, a day dedicated to family, community, study and collective expressions of gratitude. It’s when we make space for the things that are important but not urgent.
The significance of the Sabbath is threefold. First it introduces into a culture in the most vivid way the idea of limits. We can’t produce, consume and deplete our resources constantly with no constraints and no thought for future generations. A day without cars and planes would go a long way to cutting the carbon consumption that threatens the earth’s ecology. A failure to understand the idea of limits has, as Jared Diamond has chronicled in his books, brought about environmental devastation almost everywhere Homo sapiens has set foot.
Second, it creates for a day a week a world in which values are not determined by money or its equivalent. On the Sabbath you can’t buy or sell or pay for someone’s services. It is the most tangible expression of the moral limits of markets. Whether in the synagogue or home, relationships are determined by other things altogether, by a sense of kinship, belonging and mutual responsibility.
Third, the Sabbath renews social capital. It bonds people into communities in ways not structured by transactions of wealth or power. It is to time what parks are to space: something precious that we share on equal terms and that none of us could create or possess on our own.
Britain used to have its own Sabbath every Sunday. Then it was deregulated and privatised. Holy days became holidays, sacred time became free time and rest became leisure. The assumption was that everyone would benefit because we could all decide for ourselves how to spend the day. This was and remains a fallacy.
There are certain experiences, even states of being, you can’t have unless they are “out there,” not just “in here.” You can’t have the peace and quiet that used to mark the English Sunday if, as now, the roads are crowded, the shops are open, and everything is for sale. To use Robert Putnam’s famous analogy, ten pin bowling becomes a different kind of experience if no one joins teams any more and everyone goes bowling alone.
Emil Durkheim was among the first to diagnose the dangers of an era of individualism and the breakdown of community. He believed that Trade Unions might supply the Gemeinschaft, the strong togetherness, that was being lost in society as a whole. Perhaps they did once, but not now. Today you find the strongest forms of social capital in places of worship and the congregations they house, as Putnam himself has shown in his book American Grace.
Societies need civic time when we cultivate the relationships that constitute the third realm that is neither the market nor the state, and that in effect means a Sabbath, whether or not it carries religious connotations. A secular Jewish writer, Ahad Ha-am, once said, “More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” A once-a-week sabbatical that is public, not private, rest would renew the social fabric, the families and communities that sustain our liberal democratic freedom today.
(First published in Prospect Magazine)