Rest is a Justice Issue.

Keep and guard everyone's humanity. Including your own.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, in his legendary 1951 book The Sabbath,

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence from external obligations, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [human] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for progress than the Sabbath?

This entire newsletter–week after week–could be about what Shabbat is, has meant to the Jewish people. It has a million faces.

But I want to look at it in the context of the Ten Commandments:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of God your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

For in six days God made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

There’s a ton going on in here. Let’s start with: What does it mean to “remember” the sabbath day?  What are the logistics involved?  What is the rationale given? Why?

These questions are heightened in contrast to the other time we see the Ten Commandments, in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses and the Israelites at this point have gotten right up to the edge of the Promised Land, and then Moses is like, “Y’all, forty years is a long time to have been wandering in the desert.  Let’s reminisce for a moment, shall we?” It’s sort of a retelling of the events of the Exodus but from a different perspective, with a different set of agendas. (Don’t worry.  We’ll get there.)  ANYWAY.

When we get to the part where Moses tells the now next-generation Israelites–remember, this is forty years since the actual Exodus–about getting the Ten Commandments, there are some slight differences in the new version. For example!

Guard the sabbath day and keep it holy, as God your God has commanded you.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of God your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female servants, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female servants may rest as you do.

Remember that you were enslaved in the land of Egypt and God your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God your God has commanded you to guard the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

OK, so here we have “Guard” instead of “remember,” Shabbat. (Shamor could also be translated as “preserve” or “observe,” and often is in this context, but I’m going with a hyper-literal translation for reasons you’ll see in a moment.)

We have the same injunction against working and the same clarification that that’s not just you–the listener–but your kids, and your workers, and the stranger in your settlements, and even your animals.  Everybody in the household rests, that’s the same.

But the rationale is totally different. In Exodus, the reason for Shabbat is the Creation story: God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day.  So too, must we rest on the seventh day.

In Deuteronomy, the rationale is the Exodus: God freed us from enslavement, and thus commanded us to rest on Shabbat.  Very different.


OK, let’s start with “guard” vs. “remember.”  In Judaism, anyway, this is a pretty big deal.  First, we have to deal with the question: wait, which of those was the version given in the actual Ten Commandments? Because that only happened, like, once.

The Rabbis conclude that the answer is: both, and it was a powerful mystical experience in which both words (guard and remember) were spoken simultaneously, and perceived by the Israelites as a single utterance.  (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 20:8:1).

The Rabbis then decide that “guard” refers to all of the commandments of Shabbat that we call negative mitzvot, the “don’t do’s,” aka all the ways that traditionally observant Jews refrain from what we define as “work” in order to create that unique Shabbat experience, what Heschel famously referred to as a “sanctuary in time.”

Not cooking.  Not writing.  Not lighting fire. Neither creating nor destroying. (The 39 categories of prohibited labor listed in the Mishnah—from which other Shabbat prohibitions are derived—are said to be taken from the labor required to create the Tabernacle.) Allowing the world to exist, as it is, and simply dwelling in it, rather than trying to influence it, for a minute.

Back of a person's head, with long curly coiled hair

That’s guarding—guarding the fragile preciousness of this time, knowing that if we do certain things in this space, it won’t feel like Shabbat anymore. Holding space.

“Remember” became connected to all the positive mitzvot, the ways we’re meant to actively celebrate the gift that is Shabbat–the active work of preserving the consciousness of Shabbat week after week.  Lighting candles to begin Shabbat. Special songs and prayers. Saying the blessings of sanctification over wine. Blessings over challah.  Shabbat meals, with a particular enjoyment (evoking Isaiah 58:13’s reminder  that Shabbat should be an oneg, a delight), marking the end of Shabbat with the ritual of wine, spices and fire, and other such things.  Making Shabbat not just set apart (as guarding does), but significant.

Challah, candles, kiddush cup

But why the two rationales?  Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi taught me that the difference tells us something profound about where the Israelites are in their own story, and what they need to hear.

The people who have just been liberated from slavery—the people who are still deep in the trauma of enslavement, of the plagues, of being chased by the Egyptians, of their narrow escape at the Red Sea–-are told,

For in six days God made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

You can rest, sweetie, love, this commandment tells us. Even God rests. You have done enough work. Rest and be like God.  There is a beauty and a softness to it, a gentleness to it that one imagines that someone still adjusting to the experience of freedom might need. This is the natural order of things. You get to be part of the divine rhythm now. Who rests is all of us, of course, but the why is Creation.

And the how?  The how is “Remember.”  The how is to do things that bring delight, and prayer, and blessing. To actively seek Shabbat’s joy and divine connection.

Forty years later, however, on the edge of a new chapter, Moses gives the Israelites a slightly different message:

Remember that you were enslaved in the land of Egypt, and God your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God your God has commanded you to guard the sabbath day.

The Israelites to whom Moses is speaking is the next generation; those that suffered the cruelties of Pharaoh are gone, and their children, now adults, are preparing to enter the Promised Land and begin more settled, privileged lives. Do not forget, now the Ten Commandments tells us, from what you were freed.

With freedom, and privilege, comes obligations.

Obligations to ensure that everyone in the household–-every worker–-rests.  Those in their household will not be exhausted and exploited. Rather, they will honor the dignity and humanity of every person and even every animal under their purview. The Israelites are no longer newly freed and in need of care.  Now they need to be reminded of their roles and obligations, about the imperatives of creating a just society.

And here, the message is: Guard.  Protect the sanctity of the Shabbat space-time for everyone, hold those boundaries–boundaries that are thin and precious, like a shimmering bubble of soap, liable to pop if not managed with care–so that what happens inside that space can be a miraculous sort of quiet, an enchanted stillness, a holy joy, the subtle shift in the air to let you know that it is now sacred time. It’s quiet, so quiet, but it’s palpable.

So we have here, in both versions of Shabbat– but most especially when brought together– for “remember” and “guard” were given as one–clarity that spiritual practice and political understandings come together.

When recovering from or experiencing oppression, when it has been hard, rest is a critical component of liberatory practice.  Having the opportunity to pause, to celebrate, to experience joy is essential.

A Shabbat practice is critical in an exploitative culture, a way of learning how to exist as someone whose worth is not based on what one produces or makes or does, who one pleases or serves.

To have a day a week– a regular practice–just to be.

To not create or destroy.  The world has already been created.  Now we, created in the divine image, are merely to dwell in it. To experience our space as an Eden. It is a day to begin to unlearn exploitative concepts, to learn how to see ourselves, and others, in the fullness of our and their humanity, not in a transactional way.  To remember that everyone’s value–including our own–as inherent, doesn’t have to be earned–that simply existing in the world is enough.

And as part of that, Shabbat is about learning to be in the present moment, to focus on the now..  Merely leaning back and enjoying the created world as it already exists.

The Talmud (Brachot 57b) says that Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World To Come.  You can maybe start to get a sense of why.

When we are those who have privilege, our obligation is to guard, to protect.  To set up liberatory systems, to ensure that everyone in the larger society’s humanity is recognized. That their safety and dignity are preserved.

Our systems of spirituality, rest, labor and economics are all intertwined.

Our understandings of power, privilege, oppression, trauma, spirituality, rest, labor and economics are all intertwined.

They are, in every society.  Whether or not we name it clearly.  Whether or not those systems are healthy or not, life-giving and nourishing—or all part of the same systemic rot.

When we choose to make time for rest in a society that only values us when we are doing and making and producing, we make a radical declaration about our own value.

When we create space for others to rest in such a society, we are nothing short of revolutionary.

A Jewish organization called Reboot developed what they call The Sabbath Manifesto project a while back, to engage Jews who were less connected to a Shabbat practice.

Their Sabbath Manifesto has 10 principles:

1.Avoid Tech

2.Connect with Loved Ones

3. Nurture Health

4. Get Outside

5. Avoid Commerce

6. Light Candles

7. Drink Wine

8. Eat Bread

9. Find Silence

10. Give Back

When I’ve introduced this to folks who are newer to the concept of Shabbat in the past, I’ve encouraged them to not only find ways to plug into rest through these principles that feel nourishing to them, but also to pick one thing on this list that feels challenging, and to give it a whirl.  To see how it might have an impact on their practice, their experience.  I’ve never had anyone come to me and say they regret doing what turned out to help them make even more space for things that they didn’t even know that they needed.  To remember, but also to guard. You should do what’s right for you….But I’m just saying.

Choose to recharge.  Whatever that might mean for you.

Guard, and remember.

You need to rest.

There are myriad writings from a Jewish perspective I could share—Heschel’s The Sabbath is the first one I’d send you to, and also The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz. And I also want to amplify the work of Tricia Hersey, whose work on the Nap Ministry is critical in a way that the Jewish approach to Shabbat I think nods to but does not build out, for various reasons. She talks about not only rest as resistance, but rest as reparations, a racial and economic justice issue that rightly centers the exploitation of Black labor all the way back to enslavement, and the ways in which rest can heal and resist grind culture now.  Follow her on IG and Twitter now, and she has a book coming out in October that I’ll be looking for.

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