There is an old saying that being a rabbi is not a good job for a nice Jewish boy because it means you have to work on Shabbat. In fact, when I was a congregational rabbi that is how I felt. Religion should never be a job or work. In fact, all that I do for Judaism, including writing my columns, I do as an unpaid volunteer.
Shabbat is a day of rest. People are often surprised when I tell them about my observance of Shabbat. “So you don’t even answer the phone?” they ask me. No, I don’t use electronics and I don’t drive. Nor do I write. In fact, I don’t do any “work” on Shabbat. Shabbat means to stop, and as soon as the sun goes down I stop.
There was a time when I would have used Kabbalistic and Hasidic ideas to wax poetic about the spiritual benefits of keeping Shabbat. I would have explained the different levels of intense Divine energy that manifests from on High on Shabbat. But as I have matured, I have found that defining Judaism and its rituals as a set of devices to draw-down spiritual energies, no matter how lofty, in many ways devalues its profound impact on the human condition. Shabbat is a prime example of this.
Shabbat has been a huge blessing in my life. On an average day I spend about 14 to 15 hours focused on achieving goals. This includes meetings, phone calls, writing, teaching, and a host of other creative activities. As someone who works in education and youth development, most of my workday energies are focused on achievements that will better the lives of others. Yet, no matter how much I enjoy what I do, in fact because I enjoy it so much, my work can easily form into a habit.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that once a habit is formed it becomes deeply ingrained in our brain, making it very difficult to overcome. Habit exists even when memory is lost. Think about our bad habits, we end up doing them even when rationally we want to stop.
Bringing balance into life
Researchers have found that if you don’t want something to become a habit, then you should be careful to interrupt the habit formation. This is what Shabbat does for work. If we worked seven days a week, work would become a deeply ingrained habit. Even when we really want to stop working, we would find it difficult to do so. By not working one day a week on Shabbat, we interfere with the habit formation. Ironically, this allows us to stop working at will.
As long as work is not habitualized within our brains, the rational part of our brains is able to be in total control. The moment it no longer makes sense to work, we can stop, without the more base areas of our brains – where habit forms – overpowering our rational senses.
Of course there are many other corollary benefits of Shabbat – like the ability to focus on family, God, spirituality and community. But all of these can be done without the need to stop driving, emailing and making phone calls. In fact, one can argue that not driving and writing can actually impede the ability to form deeper relationships with family, friends and even God. But the brain would not distinguish between work that needs to be done for family and work that is done for our job – for the habit forming area of the brain, writing an email or driving your car is the same no matter what the purpose. The only way to interfere with the habit formation is to completely stop all of our creative activities.
So on a very practical level, Shabbat has had a most profound impact on my life. It has allowed work to be a choice for me, not a habit. When family and friends come to visit or when I go on vacation with my wife and kids, I do not feel compelled to work by some instinct that comes from a place deep within my brain. I am able to start and finish working at will. This I attribute to my keeping of Shabbat in all of its details. Shabbat is truly a gift from God.
Shabbat helps bring balance into my life. It is one of the reasons I care so much about Judaism and want to share its benefits with others.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life