One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the concept of rest. And with it, the concept of work. Shabbat, after all, is about ceasing to work. And yet we do all sorts of things on Shabbat even in the most Orthodox setting- walking, eating, drinking, chopping fruits and veggies, talking, and more. Sometimes these activities require real effort- conversation doesn’t always come easy, especially with certain guests at your table. And inevitably, walking to synagogue or a friend’s house could be quite a shlep depending on where you live. Shabbat is about ceasing to work- but it’s not about ceasing to do.
Which leaves open the question of what is work? The traditional understanding of the concept is that one should not be productive on Shabbat. In other words, no cooking, no receiving money, nothing that involves creating new things. From this point, new laws evolved that today are deeply contentious among various types of observant Jews- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and otherwise. For example, Reform and Conservative Jews typically use electricity whereas Orthodox Jews do not believe this is Shabbat-appropriate behavior. This is related to the concept of kindling a flame, which in olden times was typically used to cook. Most liberal Jews would say Orthodox observance takes the concept too far and many Orthodox Jews feel it is simply religious law taken to its logical next step.
So let’s work from the premise that while we have differing interpretations of productivity, the concept of work in Judaism derives from this fraught word. In the modern world, being “productive” is sometimes valued above concepts clearly more important. And more critically, productivity is defined according to a certain sliding scale where certain professions and courses of work are valued above others. After all, why does a banker or lawyer make many times the salary of a teacher? Is an unemployed person firing off resumes every day less productive than the career coach being paid to help her? And finally, do we sometimes come to a juncture in life where certain other goals, be it health, relationships, or something else unmonetized should take priority over productivity? Are these other paths of living less worthy because they are unpaid?
The answer is no. Sometimes the doing we do isn’t work in the traditional sense. Reconnecting with a long lost friend, apologizing to someone you’ve hurt, going to the doctor to get a scary lump checked. These are all things that require courage, action, and perseverance. And yet our society doesn’t monetize them so the people doing these brave activities often go unnoticed. Especially in such a heavily capitalist culture like the United States.
This Shabbat, I propose we redefine work and productivity. Sometimes the work we do is personal in nature or is unpaid. That’s OK- it counts as effort too. And if you’ve created something new in the process, you’ve been productive. If you’ve gotten new answers to important questions, you’ve been productive. If you’ve helped someone in need, you’ve been productive. It’s time to let go of our calculators and realize there are many ways to make a difference and to create. Sometimes intangible things that last a lifetime.
Shabbat teaches us to take a break from productivity. It’s not enough to simply not go to an office. It’s about creating an intentionality dividing the hard work you do during the week- whatever it may be and however you define it- and cultivating the inner self. Finding a time for repose, relaxation, song, meals with loved ones, and a deep breath before the cycle begins anew.
This Shabbat, I wish you the courage to acknowledge all the ways you’ve been productive this week, even if they aren’t written on a pay stub. And to allow yourself also to breathe, to take a break, and recharge. We aren’t robots- we have to recline from time to time and let ourselves enjoy. Let ourselves smile. And let ourselves rest.