The fact that Judaism constantly surprises us is not a surprise. That the institution of Shabbath is one of the best inventions God ever came up with is well known. It no doubt qualifies Him to receive the Nobel Prize for innovative thinking, and the venerable judges in Sweden and Norway should sincerely consider bestowing this honor on the Lord of the Universe. Now that most of the world has adopted the concept of a weekly day of rest, the time has come to act. The invention is nearly 6000 years old; a Nobel Prize is long overdue.
That we all need a weekly rest is common knowledge. What is much less known, although still understandable, is that the Jewish Tradition believes such rest should not only consist of refraining from strenuous labor, but also from any kind of work that presents man as having dominion over the world. One day a week man is asked to return the world and all its potential to God and, instead of being a creator, acknowledge that he is also a creature in God’s eyes – not much more than a flower, a leaf or a small bird. By refraining from cooking, writing, creating electricity, driving cars, flying in airplanes, and other such activities, man learns that the world has already been created and will no doubt survive without him. As Heschel taught us, “The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else” (1).
Shabbath is a day when we stop worshipping technology, money and power. Instead, we focus on our internal lives and our families – learning Torah, singing songs, creating an inner palace of tranquility. Shabbath is holiness in time, when we allow for personal conversations with friends, reading a book, playing a game with our children and ungluing ourselves from the mobile, the iPad and the computer. Shabbath means living in full liberty, which is paradoxically achieved by heeding prohibitions. We free ourselves from all sorts of activities that often disturb our internal balance. What can be greater than abandoning the cell phone and suddenly discovering that we have children and a spouse? An island of stillness in a turbulent sea of worldliness.
But why is it forbidden to carry even the smallest item, besides our garments and jewelry, in the public domain? In what way does this lead to more tranquility and create inner space? How does it liberate us from the shackles of daily life? That this prohibition is so crucial is clear from the fact that it is discussed in the Talmud more than any other topic! What is its secret?
It is here that the Buddha (c. 560-480 BCE) and Master Furong Daokai (12 century, China), both great philosophers, help us out. In their Zen Buddhist philosophy, one of their most remarkable observations is: The green mountains are always walking…If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking (2).
There are two reasons for walking – one is to reach a destination and the other is for the sake of strolling (in German, spazieren). When someone walks to something, his goal is outside himself: he has to be at a business meeting, or needs to bring a parcel to a specific place. But when a person takes a stroll, the walking itself is the goal. It is not a means but das ding an sich, the thing itself. Every step is its purpose. At such a moment, a human being is connected with his very being. He is walking with himself in peace and in complete harmony. He is nothing other than with himself.
Green mountains walk in the sense that they, in an existential way, stroll with themselves. They need not do anything but be mountains. Nothing outside themselves disturbs them in being mountains. They need not go anywhere; therefore they just stroll.
A man must know how to carry himself. He should know that his inner being is the goal of his life. It is his internal life that needs to spiritually and morally grow. His happiness depends not on outside circumstances but on his attitude towards those conditions. The rare and simple pleasure of being himself will compensate for all his misery. But as long as he believes that the goal of his life is about getting an object somewhere, or being somewhere, instead of being for the sake of being, he will never be what he needs to be. In that case, he is the slave of his own inventions. What he requires is a worldview that is—as Spinoza calls it—sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity.
When the Jew is told not to carry in the public domain on Shabbath, he is essentially asked not to see his life goals in the public sphere, where life is about getting somewhere. While for livelihood one no doubt needs to go places, that activity remains a weekday endeavor, a means to something but never das ding an sich. On Shabbath the Jew turns his outer mode into a being mode and, for one day a week, he becomes a person who by just carrying himself, and nothing else, is able to deal with a world that has little knowledge of the soul’s needs. On Shabbath the Jew strolls even when he goes to synagogue. Only then will he realize how great he is and that nobody can make him inferior without his own consent.
In a world where we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, where we turn mysteries into dogmas and facts, ideas into a multitude of words and routine, the Jew is asked to surpass himself by being himself; he is summoned to discover another world. Refraining from carrying is an act of protest against the shallowness of our world (3).
The time has come for all of mankind to observe Shabbath – whether on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We Jews owe it to our fellowmen.
Martin Lipson says
Shabbath is an exclusive gift from HaKodosh Boruch Hu to the Jewish People. The penalty for a Gentile keeping Shabbath is death…(at the hands of Heaven?)
See Tractate Sanhedrin 58b.
Freyda Lopes Cardozo says
When a non Jew observes shabath with some minor changes (such as lightening a candle) or on another day, he does not violate the prohibition for a non Jews to observe shabath. The point is not so much that he observes shabbath to the full extent as Jews do but that s/he has a day where s/he also returns the world back to God and learns to carry him/herself.
Michelle Ish-Shalom says
Thank you for a helpful reminder of why we live and breathe. Michelle