“Why do we keep the Sabbath?” my 5-year-old asked me last week. The Orthodox Jew in me could have answered because we are to emulate God, who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Or I could have answered because we are following our biblical obligation to do so. But I really wanted to answer: so that I can talk to you. Yes, in 2017, Shabbat exists so that parents can talk to their children. So that spouses can look at each other.
Today, it would serve families the world over—atheists and agnostics included—to consider keeping a similar day of rest.
As a philosophy student, God’s omniscience was perplexing—but as a parent in the digital world the concept has been validated. Only an all-knowing God could have prophesied that in 2017, humans would be seduced by devices. And so He had the genius to create a day where we are divinely commanded to purge ourselves of them. It’s no friendly suggestion but a heavenly duty. As an Orthodox Jew, I am considered His servant—but following this electricity-free dictum as a mom is liberating. Here’s why:
It’s Friday night, and for the first time in a week, I’ve had a real conversation with my spouse—and I know I’m not alone. When we’re lucky enough to scramble a dinner date, we’re accompanied by rows of couple tables whose silhouettes glow from their touchscreen interfaces.
Admittedly, there’s almost always a good reason to check your phone. Did the babysitter reach out? Is there a pressing work email? On Shabbat, such worries are automatically suspended. And so we talk. We reflect on our goals as a couple, our hopes for our children. On the Sabbath we re-learn how to make eye contact.
I’m also reminded of how to be the parent I want to be. I am present. There are no sporadic feed-checking “bathroom breaks.” When my kids boast their pumping from the swings, they aren’t competing with a handheld box.
And when they do create something truly impressive—like a bunk bed converted into a rowboat using hockey sticks—I can appreciate it today, without worrying about chronicling the shot for a bar mitzvah montage in nine years. When I recently uploaded my year’s 1473 photos to my computer (roughly four images of my kids’ life documented per day) I realized that amounts to more shots than I have of my entire childhood. Thankfully, once a week, for 25 hours straight, not one moment is caught on camera. For one day, they can resume being children, not cyber celebrities. For one day, the future is second to the now.
“Is Google God?” was one of the best questions my mother, a preschool teacher, ever got from a student. For the first time in history, nearly any inquiry can be resolved with the immediacy and ease of a three-inch search field. In an unforgettable scene from Noa Baumbach’s “When We Were Young,” Josh pulls out his phone to Google a word, but Jamie and Darby stop him. “Let’s just not know,” Jamie says. The Sabbath teaches us the same. An answer can wait. There is value to contemplation and to patience, even if means not knowing.
Last January, a snowstorm paralyzed the mid-Atlantic region; the blizzard broke NYC snowfall records at 27.5 inches and was recorded as the city’s second worst storm in history. That day was also a Saturday. Well before we were apprised of the pending storm, my husband and I had committed to a playdate on 87th and Amsterdam. As we looked out our window and watched Central Park turn into a winter wonderland—and walker’s hell—trekking 16 blocks and several avenues with two toddlers seemed like a suicide mission.
When we toyed with canceling, my kids would have none of it. They’ll be waiting for us! Instead of ignoring the limitations of their perspective (of course our friends would have understood) we used their ingenuous innocence as a moral guide. Commitments should be kept. And in an era where hardly a day passes without a rescheduled meeting-professionally and socially—let there be one day where our plan is concrete.
And so, with good spirit, snow pants, sleighs, and blankets, we were on. Through a typically 20-minute walk that turned into an hour of family trudging, our children learnt that for one day at least, our word can be gold.
A noted essayist and Jewish thinker Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jew.” Not without its challenges, Shabbat helps our family unit keep it real. So, whether you’re biblically mandated to rest on the seventh day or not, if you’re raising kids I invite you to try it out just once. Don’t be surprised if you feel a gust of freedom following a set of Ancient laws.