Shabbat Shalom Week 1: Shabbat is a Technology

Why, thank you for asking, @gasnerpants. I have many thoughts about Shabbat in the digital age. As I replied on Twitter, many of those thoughts are in chapter 7 of In Real Life, but I’m going to share many more here on the site.

I spend Shabbat entirely away from computers. I won’t even write on paper. That’s not to say I don’t employ lots of technology on Shabbat, though, not hardly. As Ariel and I have settled in to our religious life, we’ve gotten all kinds of Shabbat gadgets. We got a hot water dispenser with a ‘Shabbat Mode’ that keeps water at tea temperature while disabling the machine’s status lights. If the lights turned on and off on Shabbat, we’d be turning them on by drinking the water, and that would violate Jewish law. We also got an electric slow-cooker. We cook a bunch of food on Friday before Shabbat starts at sundown, and then we put the slow-cooker on ‘Warm,’ which keeps food right at serving temperature. It has to be done cooking before sundown, though; even if we turned the machine on before Shabbat, actually cooking food is prohibited. You can warm it up, you just can’t bring it up past a certain temperature.

Many of you — and the 12-year-old version of me — are probably perplexed by this. If Shabbat has prohibitions against using electronics, how can people use such sophisticated technical workarounds? It’s definitely weird for me, too. Leaving appliances on for 25 hours (Shabbat ends one hour-ish after sundown Saturday night) is difficult for me to reconcile with the environmental impact (that's why we only use low-power electrical things instead leaving our freaking oven on low). But these eccentricities don’t provoke me to just give up the whole exercise. I recognize that Shabbat is a powerful technology. I just adjust some of the settings.

For me, the laws of Shabbat are the operating instructions for a complex, intricately designed, very stable piece of human mental software. They exist to solve problems for us, just like any technology. For Jews, Shabbat solves lots of spiritual problems that are probably outside the scope of this site. But some of them are at the heart of this discussion for Jews and non-Jews alike. Anybody with an online life recognizes the yearning for offline time. It feels important that we get off the proverbial grid every once in a while. Too much time online has terrible side effects. Social and professional pressures may force us to be online more than we’re comfortable. Ah, but not on Shabbat. On Shabbat, we rest.

It doesn’t matter whether the rabbis anticipated social media. The problems with being “online” are mostly quite old. We get enough busyness, enough running around, enough planning and writing and carrying and cooking the other six days of the week. We need a day to rest! That seems obvious, really, but the solution isn’t. Even if we have a weekend off, we don’t use it! We still might check our email, and even if we don’t, we worry about it.This is what the arcane, complicated laws of Shabbat are for. They’re calibrated to keep Jews concentrating on the needs of upholding Shabbat, so we don’t have the capacity to worry too much about what happens after. It’s kind of a hack, but hey, the human brain is not the most elegant system. It needs a little duct tape and baling wire sometimes.

Even without any of the religious content, there’s a basic technology underlying Shabbat that anyone can use: To counteract the exhausting forces of life “online” — whatever that means in your life, whether it involves the Internet or not — one can make rules and practices for avoiding those forces to allow oneself to recover for a fixed, inviolable period of time. Those rules become sacred to you. The time itself becomes sacred. I thought I loved weekends before I started keeping Shabbat. Now I dance through my Fridays.

Try a Shabbat, even just a mini-Shabbat, away from the technologies that make you feel busy. After Shabbat, come let us know how it went here in the comments.

Shabbat shalom, l’kulam!