Sabbath: What Does It Mean to Stop Working?

As our family gets more into a regular practice of Sabbath observance, I find myself thinking about how to define work, i.e. that thing that we're supposed to stop doing during Sabbath time. I tell church folks when I speak about this that the Sabbath is given as a "delight" (Isaiah), so Sabbath time can include those delightful activities that bring us joy. For some people, gardening is restful and appropriate for Sabbath; for others, it is drudgery. I was talking to a friend about the Jewish observance of Sabbath, with its many guidelines handed down over generations, which he good-naturedly described as "OCD." (By the way, this friend is Jewish, or was raised Jewish, or is nominally culturally Jewish---I'm not really sure how to describe him, but trust he'll chime in shortly.)

I've done some reading about the Jewish Sabbath, specifically what is and is not, well, kosher to do on that day. As I understand it, many Orthodox observers will turn on the lights they need before Sabbath begins, because while it's OK to use electricity, it is off-limits to operate it. And they may pre-tear toilet paper so as not to have to tear on the Sabbath. (Hey, Ecclesiastes specifically says there is a time to tear; I'm calling that a biblical basis.) Blu Greenberg writes in the above-linked book:

Preparing paper in advance seems so remote from holy time. The objective outsider might say, 'This is pure legalism and highly ridiculous besides; there's no work involved in tearing a piece of perforated toilet paper on the Sabbath.' To which an insider might respond, 'Look how clever the Rabbis were: even in as mundane a place as the bathroom, one is reminded of the uniqueness of the day.'

I must admit that I can relate to both perspectives. To the second, I find that Sabbath is more meaningful when I have prepared for it rather than have it be something that suddenly befalls me. Last Friday night I hurriedly finished folding the clothes, not because the next day's Sabbath would be ruined if I didn't finish, nor because I wouldn't let myself begin Sabbath until I'd done it, but because it felt like a clear act of delineation: Tonight, I bring a little order to the chaos in our household. Tomorrow I rest.

But the question remains: What is work? When you have a child who's still in diapers, and daughters who are only self-entertaining for periodic bursts and certainly not for a whole day, and klutzy parents who spill things on the kitchen floor, there's just a basic level of upkeep that's necessary. And while caring for family is a great joy, it is also work. And if you're already doing that kind of work, it's easy to find yourself lurching, zombie-like, into other kinds of work without even realizing it.

Another grey area: I am a hopeless Cleaner As I Go. If I'm walking upstairs anyway and I see the pair of shoes I left on the stairs that need to be taken up, what do I do? Does it undermine the restful, leave-it-be mindset to pick them up and take them with me? What if it's a 30 pound laundry basket instead of a pair of shoes? Does it matter? If I don't do it and it continues to nag at me, is that a mindset to be overcome, or do I just complete the task, because hey, I have the freedom to define this as I please?

Circling back around to my friend's "OCD" comment---yes, it does seem that way. But I'm also very sympathetic to an observance of Sabbath in which the boundaries are clear. It's not the doing of the stuff that's a burden per se, it's the deciding whether it's in or out that causes angst. We've all heard those stories about how crippling it can be to have too many choices.

What is work to you? And what does resting from that work entail for you? Here's an answer from a friend. Here's my current line in the sand, just because I need one: the work I end up doing on the Sabbath can only grow out of things that occurred on the Sabbath. So of course I'm going to change my kid's diaper, but I'm not changing the overflowing diaper pail. So I will clear the breakfast and lunch dishes, and may even wash them if we won't have clean ones for dinner otherwise, but I will not unload the dishwasher from the night before. I will clean up the Thomas track that my son insisted that I build and has now abandoned for other delights, but the pile of library books leftover from a mid-week reading blitz will stay untouched. So there is still work on the Sabbath, but it is all self-contained in its own temporal parentheses.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and part of that system is getting the details out of one's head so as to cultivate a "mind like water"---an uncluttered, unworried mind that can focus on whatever is most important in that moment. Having some boundaries in place feels like a way to have a Sabbath like water.