Bring Back the Sabbath

Epistemic Status: Several months of experimentation

Previously: Choices are BadChoices Are Really BadComplexity Is Bad, Play in Easy Mode, Play in Hard ModeOut to Get You, Slack

For More Thoughts After: Sabbath Commentary

Alternate Take (Endorsed): Sabbath Hard and Go Home.

Slack is life. It is under attack. We must fight for it.

Choices Are Bad. Really Bad. We need a break.

Complexity Is Bad. We need a break.

Work is exhausting. We need a break.

Relaxation is hard. Our attempts fail or backfire.

The modern world is Out to Get You. We need a break.

We need time for ourselves. Time that is truly our own.

Without setting aside such time, that won’t happen. Even when you take time, you’ll be continuously choosing to take time, and… well, whoops.

Modern life made the problem worse, but the problem is ancient. The ancients had an answer.

We need rules. We need ritual.

We need the Sabbath.

Cabin in the Woods

The parallels of my and Ben Hoffman’s Sabbath realizations are striking.

A few months ago, like Ben, I needed a break. My job puts me under constant pressure. My weekends weren’t refreshing me. Like Ben, I experimented with camping. Like Ben, I had no spare battery, and left my phone off.  I read The Great Transformation. I had meant to do that for weeks. I loved the world leaving me alone. Like Ben, I could relax, slow down, think.

I wasn’t worried about things I could be doing – I couldn’t do them.

Could I get this without the trip? Friends had started hosting Friday night dinners. What about the whole thing? What if we brought back the Sabbath?

Tradition makes rules easier to justify and explain, to others and yourself. These rules were time tested. I could take them and make them my own.

I thought about the components. Which made sense? What rules would let me cut the enemy, and relax?

Return of the Ritual

Rituals need clear beginnings and endings.

Sabbath begins with candles. One lights two candles, and recites a blessing.

For the evening meal, one says additional words and blessings, drinks wine, eats bread from one of two whole loafs and sits down to a proper meal with friends and family.

The candles are a signpost and deadline. Your week is complete and your work is done. There will be guests, so the apartment is ready. The ritual objects, and your needs for tomorrow, are secured. The meal is prepared. Time to feast and relax!

Slack is thus preserved in five ways.

This creates a time and place to see friends and family. Most want more social events, but coordination is hard and events are work. Now there’s always Friday night.

They increase the value of improving your home. Every week you notice the little things that enrich meal, visit and home. They’re Worth It, but easy to forget. Enhancing the little things enhances your life.

They prevent accumulation of personal-and-home-related work debt. A chaotic house is not restful. Postponed chores weigh on youThe deadline forces handling them in advance. Payoff is immediate.

By moving work before the deadline you are forced to make time during the week. You don’t eat into Slack. If you can’t find the time, this alerts you. Emergency!

They create visible failure as you approach hard bounds. When emergency arises, you sacrifice from the ritual. This signals emergency before life falls apart. You still have reserves. The ritual is Slack.

Sabbath ends with another candle. This prevents doing work until you go through non-trivial motions. You must do it on purpose.

Four Freedoms

We need restrictions that free us from the world. We need a new four freedoms.

We need freedom from work. Decide what counts as work to you. Don’t do that. Anything done for money is automatically work. During the week, time is money. Today, do what you value.

We need freedom from interruption. Space to think. Cut off the outside world. Especially cut off anything continuously updating and all periodic rewards. There lie Skinner boxes. Much of the world is out to get you. Today it can wait. Friendly visitors are welcome, but ideally arranged in advance.

We need freedom from choice. Full freedom from choice requires a step beyond the traditional rules. In my version, even among permitted activities, only those explicitly selected in advance are available – particular books, radio stations and so forth – plus things you feel intrinsic motivation to do. No lists. No browsing.

We need freedom from stress. Stressful conversations are not allowed. Doing work is not allowed. Making decisions is not allowed. Outside information is not allowed. If something was still going to stress you out and it was fixable, fix it before the Sabbath. Things can’t change on their own, and you can’t make them change. Why stress?

Sabbath Easy, Sabbath Easy, Sabbath Hard


Tension exists between that which is most restful right now, and that which would be a stable set of rules. There are two Easy Modes, representing each extreme.

One extreme is Orthodox Sabbath. This uses a strict, fixed set of rules. Pure deontology. You can’t carry objects without special preparations. Many objects you can’t even touch. This interferes a lot with relaxation, and forces realignment of life to prevent that. That can be good. There are even rules about violating the spirit of the rules – if you violate the spirit without breaking even those rules, that’s almost encouraged. Restrictions allow maximization.

Another extreme is Reform Sabbath. This asks, what would be most restful today? This is utilitarian and uses causal decision theory. Sabbath is for rest, so if driving a car or making a call would be more restful, do that. You could break the rules. This destroys freedom from choice. Who respects such boundaries? You won’t have urgency before the Sabbath. You can handle things later. Wouldn’t that be more restful? 

The Hard Mode approach asks, what sustainable rule set best preserves long run Slack? Taking stock and encouraging Slack-preserving outside the Sabbath are explicit goals. It uses logical decision theory. It creates personalized rules you can follow that work for you, but understands each divergence you select is expensive.

It asks what would be in the spirit of the rules, and modifying the rules to reflect that spirit. It views breaking current rules during the Sabbath with extreme skepticism, to reinforce following the rules. It modifies rules on Sunday.

In choice-related ways my current system is more restrictive than the Orthodox version. Mostly it is less restrictive, but becoming more restrictive over time. I currently allow Level 4 but everything there is on the chopping block. On Friday night I restrict to Level 2.

Hierarchy of the Shabbistic

There exists a hierarchy of shabbisticness. At one end are activities aligned with the goals of relaxing, recharging and unplugging. Sleep certainly qualifies. At the other are activities perfectly in conflict with those goals. Work done for money.

The hierarchy’s details are different for different people. If you see something as work, it drains you. Move it down towards the unshabbistic. If you see something as invigorating, and have the spontaneous urge to do it for intrinsic reasons, move it up towards the shabbistic.

Then draw a hard line. Deciding whether to allow something is an impactful choice (itself banned) and a slippery slope. The golden rule of Sabbath is not breaking the  rules. When in doubt, don’t do the thing, then refine your rule on Sunday.

I encourage stricter rules for Friday night than Saturday. This enriches without being stifling.

This is my current hierarchy. Levels 1-2 I consider purely good, Levels 3 good, Level 4  questionable. Level 5 is bad, Level 6 very bad. Level 7 is banned all week.

  1. Pure rest. Sleep. Rest. Walking. Intellectual discussion. Friendly discussion. Reading physical books and other physical objects. Meditation. Museums. Taking a bath.
  2. Active rest. Sex. Flirting. Running. Swimming. Playing sports. Arguments for low stakes. Board and card games with no stakes. Puzzles. Building models. Taking a shower. Eating. Watching sports in person. Light switches.
  3. Consumptive rest. Riding elevators. Radio with one station. Listening to music. Food preparation without lighting a fire. Window shopping. Kindle and other e-books.
  4. Potentially toxic actions. Writing for yourself. Taking notes. Practicing and training personal skills that are not work or work related. Working out. Computer games. Pre-selected television. Phone calls and texts for physical coordination purposes. Riding in cars and trains (without payment).
  5. Violations of compactness. Phone calls and texts not for same-day logistical coordination. All other use of smartphones. Making impactful decisions. Planning. Flipping stations on television or radio. Browsing the internet. Browsing a giant music collection. All long lists, especially lists of choices. Checking anything that continuously updates. Lighting a fire. Stressful topics of conversation.
  6. Work and outside demands. Exchange of money. Doing business. Anything that earns money or creates commercial value. Negotiations. All continuous updates. Email.
  7. Considered harmful. All timed and daily rewards. Micro-transactions. Social media.

The Rules Simplified

Start here. Adjust as needed.

Light candles before sundown Friday to begin.

No outside inputs except in person.

No choices impacting post-Sabbath.

Light and extinguish no fires. Do no work or business. Spend no money.

Only preselected and spontaneously motivated actions are allowed. No browsing. No lists.

Light another candle after sundown Saturday to end.

State of Emergency

I brought back Sabbath for Slack and relaxation. Ben brought it back as an alarm system, for when life was out of control. Sabbath shows when you are not okay, and provides method and incentive to get back to okay.

This Saturday I did full Orthodox Sabbath (minus prayer), and also fasted, as an experiment. I won’t do this every week or even month, but it had important alarm value.

Ben’s post is excellent. Read the whole thing. I’ll finish with two key passages from it.

Key motivation:

You would not want to do this sort of thing all the time. But it might make sense to do periodically – perhaps once a week – as a stopgap measure to combat attention drift. If powerful and pervasive cultural forces are out to get you, you ought to check in from time to time with yourself, and other people with whom you have local, high-quality relationships, to give yourself a chance to notice whether you have gotten got for too much.

His conclusion is important and worth quoting in full:

One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.

In our commercialized society, there will be many opportunities to purchase palliatives, and these palliatives are often worth purchasing. If living close to your place of employment would be ruinously expensive, you drive or take public transit. If you don’t have time to feed yourself, you can buy some fast food. If you’re not up for talking with a friend in person, or don’t have the time, there’s Facebook. But this is palliative care for a chronic problem.

In Jewish law, it is permissible to break the Sabbath in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake. If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week – as my Reform Jewish family did – then you should consider that perhaps, despite the propaganda of the palliatives, you are in a permanent state of emergency. This is not okay. You are not doing okay.

So, how are you?






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24 Responses to Bring Back the Sabbath

  1. hunterstheorem says:

    This sounds like it would be amazing. I would also die alone if I made this a regular practice.

    Since I don’t already have a wife, or even a very high contact group of close friends, I’d basically just be promising to spend 24 hours by myself not talking to anyone, which is too much of my life already, not to mention giving up the biggest section of my free time to meet such people.

    As usual, the rich get richer with good practices. :) Oh well.

    • TheZvi says:

      One of the two purposes is to notice when you are in an emergency situation. Not having friends or a relationship certainly qualifies! In fact, the principle of the Minyan, saying you need to have a group of 10 gather each week, is an even more explicit forcing of that issue.

      So I would completely agree, you can’t fully do this right now, or at least should happily break your restrictions in order to meet new friends or relationship partners. Setting special time aside for that, instead, comes first.

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  6. Quixote says:

    I like this post and this list. From an outside perspective, though, all the emphasis on fire seems strange. There’s nothing in particular about lighting or not lighting a fire that makes things more or less relaxing. If I decide to go camping, camping will be more pleasant and relaxing after a day of hiking fi I have a fire and a warm meal. If I’m spending a day at home with my SO, it might be pleasant to cook a nice dinner or try out a new recipe that’s looked good but that I wouldn’t have time to make on a week night. Even if we’re just reheating food we made before, something reheat better in an oven than a microwave.

    Basically, it seems like the whole “fire” thing isn’t actually connected to the point of the exercise in any way. I get that fire was a big deal to nomadic herdsmen 5000 years ago, but it seems like an odd spandrel in your rules set. But on the other hand, if it has personal sentimental value, nothing wrong with it.

    • Quixote says:

      Oops. I see you address some of my thoughts / concerns in the next post. And I see another commenter remarked on fire as well and you responded there.

      One thing I do want to note, is that your discussion of fire and travel, and exercise and all that would make camping impossible. The insights that both you and Ben had arose while camping. It seems odd to me that camping produces an insight, and the consequence of the insight is to devise a rule set which makes repeating the conditions which led to the insight impossible. There is something about this that seems self defeating, although I suppose its possible that I just like camping and so am looking for an exception for my hobby.

      • TheZvi says:

        Camping is an obvious sort of super-Shabbat in a lot of ways, and indeed it would be very bad to make it impossible; I certainly would allow for technical violations (e.g. lighting a fire) if that was necessary to repeat the experience. One could even call it an ’emergency’ in the sense that clearly you have to light a fire if you’re in the wilderness. On the other hand, if you could get the fire going and keep it going the whole day (it’s lighting the fire that counts, not having a fire that is lit), especially if you’d already gathered the wood, that does seem more restful, if you’re planning to camp in one place. If you’re moving about, I think just saying it’s a special situation is good enough.

      • Quixote says:

        Thanks. I have one question regarding your preferred posting norm here. In general, because comments are noted on the sidebar and because only the most recent few comments are displayed, I have tried not to make many formally polite but low content comments because they push other comments off the sidebar.

        For example, suppose I ask a question in the comments, you answer it, I feel your answer addresses my concern and I’m happy with your reply. I have not been posting further replies to the effect of, “Thanks, for the clarification. I appreciate it.”

        From the perspective of a blog reader, I imagine readers don’t want to see the newest comment notice for something as simple as “thanks.” However, from the perspective of you the writer, I can imagine this might be unsatisfying. You post a reply and there is no response; did I not see you response, did I post and then disengage, or did I see it and just not have anything to say. The lack of a formal coda, would in email or casual conversation, be impolite. So I figured, rather than continue to guess at your preference, I’ll just explicitly ask this one time and then follow that going forwards. Thanks.

      • TheZvi says:

        I think it’s fine to have the occasional thank-you style post; I’m not overly concerned about the recent comments scroll. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to give this kind of a response to the extent that not doing so represents information in the general case, but especially where such a comment contains real information (that the question was in fact answered / agreement was reached) I think such comments are net positive.

      • Quixote says:

        Got it. Thanks.

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  10. Aron Wall says:

    Your Sabbath Commentary link goes to the wrong place (back to this post, in fact)

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  14. andyman says:

    I wonder how childcare fits into Sabbath. I didn’t grow up with a ritualized day of rest so I don’t have familiarity. What you are describing sounds amazing and I would love to have a day if only Level 1-2 restful activities. But what does a Sabbath-practioner do when your 2-year old pours his blocks out all over the middle of the kitchen floor (just leave it and the other 10 messes he makes until tomorrow?)… and then he begs you to play that game where you have to pretend to be one of the PJ Mask cartoon villains (something that we’ll say, for argument’s sake, you are completely sick of)?

    • TheZvi says:

      Yeah, it’s a problem, but also a fire alarm for a bigger problem if you need non-Sabbath things to entertain the kids (Ben’s post put this reasonably centrally). I do think young children mean you don’t get the full effect in some ways, certainly newborns aren’t about to give you the day off…

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