Sabbath: What Does It Mean to Stop Working?

As our family gets more into a regular practice of Sabbath observance, I find myself thinking about how to define work, i.e. that thing that we’re supposed to stop doing during Sabbath time. I tell church folks when I speak about this that the Sabbath is given as a “delight” (Isaiah), so Sabbath time can include those delightful activities that bring us joy. For some people, gardening is restful and appropriate for Sabbath; for others, it is drudgery.

I was talking to a friend about the Jewish observance of Sabbath, with its many guidelines handed down over generations, which he good-naturedly described as “OCD.” (By the way, this friend is Jewish, or was raised Jewish, or is nominally culturally Jewish—I’m not really sure how to describe him, but trust he’ll chime in shortly.)

I’ve done some reading about the Jewish Sabbath, specifically what is and is not, well, kosher to do on that day. As I understand it, many Orthodox observers will turn on the lights they need before Sabbath begins, because while it’s OK to use electricity, it is off-limits to operate it. And they may pre-tear toilet paper so as not to have to tear on the Sabbath. (Hey, Ecclesiastes specifically says there is a time to tear; I’m calling that a biblical basis.) Blu Greenberg writes in the above-linked book:

Preparing paper in advance seems so remote from holy time. The objective outsider might say, ‘This is pure legalism and highly ridiculous besides; there’s no work involved in tearing a piece of perforated toilet paper on the Sabbath.’ To which an insider might respond, ‘Look how clever the Rabbis were: even in as mundane a place as the bathroom, one is reminded of the uniqueness of the day.’

I must admit that I can relate to both perspectives. To the second, I find that Sabbath is more meaningful when I have prepared for it rather than have it be something that suddenly befalls me. Last Friday night I hurriedly finished folding the clothes, not because the next day’s Sabbath would be ruined if I didn’t finish, nor because I wouldn’t let myself begin Sabbath until I’d done it, but because it felt like a clear act of delineation: Tonight, I bring a little order to the chaos in our household. Tomorrow I rest.

But the question remains: What is work? When you have a child who’s still in diapers, and daughters who are only self-entertaining for periodic bursts and certainly not for a whole day, and klutzy parents who spill things on the kitchen floor, there’s just a basic level of upkeep that’s necessary. And while caring for family is a great joy, it is also work. And if you’re already doing that kind of work, it’s easy to find yourself lurching, zombie-like, into other kinds of work without even realizing it.

Another grey area: I am a hopeless Cleaner As I Go. If I’m walking upstairs anyway and I see the pair of shoes I left on the stairs that need to be taken up, what do I do? Does it undermine the restful, leave-it-be mindset to pick them up and take them with me? What if it’s a 30 pound laundry basket instead of a pair of shoes? Does it matter? If I don’t do it and it continues to nag at me, is that a mindset to be overcome, or do I just complete the task, because hey, I have the freedom to define this as I please?

Circling back around to my friend’s “OCD” comment—yes, it does seem that way. But I’m also very sympathetic to an observance of Sabbath in which the boundaries are clear. It’s not the doing of the stuff that’s a burden per se, it’s the deciding whether it’s in or out that causes angst. We’ve all heard those stories about how crippling it can be to have too many choices.

What is work to you? And what does resting from that work entail for you? Here’s an answer from a friend. Here’s my current line in the sand, just because I need one: the work I end up doing on the Sabbath can only grow out of things that occurred on the Sabbath. So of course I’m going to change my kid’s diaper, but I’m not changing the overflowing diaper pail. So I will clear the breakfast and lunch dishes, and may even wash them if we won’t have clean ones for dinner otherwise, but I will not unload the dishwasher from the night before. I will clean up the Thomas track that my son insisted that I build and has now abandoned for other delights, but the pile of library books leftover from a mid-week reading blitz will stay untouched. So there is still work on the Sabbath, but it is all self-contained in its own temporal parentheses.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and part of that system is getting the details out of one’s head so as to cultivate a “mind like water”—an uncluttered, unworried mind that can focus on whatever is most important in that moment. Having some boundaries in place feels like a way to have a Sabbath like water.



11 thoughts on “Sabbath: What Does It Mean to Stop Working?

  1. Martha Turner Fein says:

    The full description of the things that are considered to be “work” on Shabbat for traditionally religious Jews is drawn from the list of tasks that were required to build the Temple. That’s the starting point, and from there, further restrictions were added. (The idea is that if the Torah says not to touch a rock, the rabbis built a fence around the rock and said don’t touch the fence.) For example, according to the Talmud, the builders of the temple labelled each stone with a two letter code to say where it would go. So the biblical restriction would be on writing two letters. The rabbis added fences saying that you shouldn’t write one letter, or even touch a writing instrument for the purposes of writing anything.

    Having said that, I feel that it’s important to balance the biblical description of work with those things that help you remember what’s holy about this time. I find that forcing myself not to turn on or off lights reminds me that I’m in a sacred time — because it’s normally something I do without thinking. Becoming conscious of my actions is a step towards making them holy, for me.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Martha, I am so glad you commented. That’s great stuff—thank you!

      I was thinking about you as I wrote this post—I remember a conversation in college in which you talked about the freedom that comes in following the law. It took me a long time to get that paradox. That was quite counter-cultural, especially for a college student.

      • Martha Turner Fein says:

        Which is kind of interesting, since this is something I’m struggling with myself. I used to be much stricter about keeping Shabbat, but I’m starting to think about what is really meaningful to me and what isn’t. I will say that the hardest thing for me these days is to NOT spend all my time talking about the work that week.

  2. Rachel Heslin says:

    I have little to contribute other than a thank you for these series of posts. It has made me realize how far I have fallen from awareness of the need for deliberate moments, for time set aside to nurture the spirit amidst the craziness of a world that never stops.

  3. Ruth Everhart says:

    Thanks for linking that old post of mine. I still don’t know what to do with Sabbath. On some fundamental level I don’t know if I can understand what it means to be in the world but not try to effect change. This is a revolutionary concept to me, and it’s good to be reminded of its necessity. It slips away from me.

  4. Keith Snyder says:

    I also said that one key to understanding the Jewish sabbath is understanding that Jews find stress relaxing.

    Hairsplitting over the Sabbath makes me glad I’m not observant–it’s one of the things I find most aggravating about my people; that and the insistence that kosher pizza is edible–but not having that day of not chaos does feel like a loss.

    One of my kids just asked about Sabbath. I said I’d get back to him. Right now, life is such that we could realistically only manage a token, but I wonder if that would be worthwhile in more than a symbolic way. Symbols and epiphanies without practical effect aggravate me too.

  5. Keith Snyder says:

    What GTD products? Lots of stuff at that site.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Oh, we just have the book (Getting Things Done). We also have his second book, which is just OK. And I have his blog on google reader and such.

      The rest of the stuff on that site is too spendy.

  6. Keith Snyder says:

    I have to read a book?

    Forget it.

  7. Ben-Zion Wasserman says:


    very cool, thoughtful post and comments.

    GTD is Shabbos-friendly. Advanced common-sense, who knew? I am a GTD fanatic, and a Chassidic Jew. I enter into Shabbos with my committments inventoried, in a trusted system, that is available for review whenever necessary so that I can have peace of mind. Like Daid Allen says in his book: “Are you ready for ready?!”

    Shabbos is the ultimate ready. Without GTD (G-d forbid) peace of mind for Shabbos is achieved through thoughtful preparation. GTD is being prepared for anything (see above are you ready for…?). GTD is not really the preparation or the lists, or any of that other “gotta get organized” stuff. GTD is the after. The energized buzz of having a mind like water, splash. This is Shabbos (so to speak!).

    Do I check my trusted system on Shabbos? Not often, if ever. But GTD’ing it the other portion of the week, creates a huge space for doing Shabbos.

    What if I want to ubiquitosly capture something on Shabbos, but the conventional means for doing that are not available to me (digital-voice, pen and paper, etc.). Well this happens during the week too. Let’s say, you are meeting one-on-one with your boss or client and a real cool idea pops into your head and you don’t want to either lose it or have to have it again, if ever, what do you do? SInce I always have a pen and notepad with me I am always ready to capture it for later review. But, when I am playing Lego with my son, or meeting with my boss or patients I let some things go uncaptured. This is the power of GTD. With the appropriate application of pretty run-of-the mill analog skills (reading, writing, filing alphabetically A-M, N-Z) YOU (my emphasis) become a trusted system. It has to be experienced, like Shabbos! It is the long, shorter way.

    all the best, Ben Wasserman.

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