Growing up, Shabbos meant a day of things I was not allowed to do.
I was not allowed to talk on the phone.
I was not allowed to go to the mall.
I was not allowed to turn on the lights.
I was not allowed to go to the school dance, unless I walked, which I pretended to do but actually my friend met me in her pickup truck at the end of my block.
And of course, I was not allowed to say I didn’t like not being allowed to do the things I wanted to do.
When I got to college, I was finally able — even if still not technically “allowed” — to do whatever I wanted.
I don’t remember any of the things I did to celebrate this newfound freedom. But soon enough, Saturdays became just another day. A day that I needed to get things done, exciting things like dropping off dry cleaning, getting my nails done, or making plans for later in the week. Before embarking on what turned out to be a brief stint as a corporate litigator, my father urged me to tell my bosses I was religious — that I couldn’t work on Shabbos or any Jewish holidays. I told him I didn’t want to start my new career on a dishonest foot.
What a mistake.
Yet even after leaving the law, I did not see the value of Shabbos. I continued to treat Saturdays like any other day, even if I would occasionally make a Friday night dinner for friends and serve it with challah and wine—and those dinners usually turned out to be the highlight of the week.
As a reporter, I no longer have to answer to law firm partners who call me into their office at 6:30pm on a Friday with an “urgent” assignment that was so urgent they had forgotten all about it until that moment. But I do live and breathe the 24-hour news cycle, writing for an Internet that never sleeps.
This changed a few months ago, right after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I started keeping Shabbos—and it has been glorious.
The rules have taken time to define, but here is where they stand: No phone and no computer. Television is allowed, but no streaming because it would require a phone or computer. No spending money (except occasionally coffee) and no transportation other than my own two feet. The underlying point is simple—no working.
Here is what the best 25 hours of my week looks like: I leave the office early on Fridays, stop at the supermarket to pick up what I need to make Shabbos dinner, and head home. I turn off my phone at the appointed time and simply enjoy the act of cooking, instead of checking my email or answering texts about what time people should come over. My roommate cleans up and sets a beautiful Shabbos table. Friends come over at a prearranged time, or maybe a little late or a little early, it doesn’t really matter. They bring wine and dessert and funny stories and each week, I let one decorate the hummus with olive oil, paprika and za’atar. We eat a big meal, as much as we want. Nobody takes their phone out at the table—not because there’s a rule against it but because there’s no reason to.
Shabbos, of course, also means being invited out. These occasions join together two great pleasures: eating other people’s food and walking without an app counting my steps. Listen, the first time I crossed the Williamsburg bridge on foot I was thinking about it—”all these steps and no device to count them! What a waste!” But I realized that my payment for the long walk came through another form of satisfaction: food. Before that Williamsburg walk, I had probably three slices of pizza and a pound of bread and cheese. Also dessert and I think some chips. Dinner at my future sister-in-law’s sixty blocks uptown? Great, I’ll eat as much as I want there, too!
Walking without a phone, of course, also means paying real attention to my surroundings. Whether it’s the person I’m walking with or those passing me by, actually listening and looking for prolonged periods of time brings back waves of nostalgia for a simpler time while simultaneously feeling entirely new. (I noticed, for example, in the unseasonably warm early fall that see-through clothing is apparently very in right now. Everyone in Williamsburg is wearing see-through clothing!)
Whatever I’m doing I am actually present for it.
Except of course, when I’m not. Anxieties from the week seep in, even if not through my phone. An angry call at 2pm on Friday still reverberates in my ears that night at dinner. I have cheated, turning on my phone to check my email after publishing something controversial, anticipating angry emails from meat lords or betrayed vegans.
But what I’ve learned is that I don’t need to cheat. None of these problems really need immediate assistance, even if they seem to at the moment. And the glory of Shabbos—and being openly observant—is that you get to tell people that. “Sorry, I am a Sabbath observant Jew” turns out to be a widely accepted excuse for not working! I bet you could take the “Jew” out and it would still work.
I guess my Dad was right all along.