, , ,

Friday nights in our household, the table gets set with a white tablecloth, wine cups, two candlesticks, and is soon adorned with a challah and a Shabbat dinner. Along with our bustling preparations, you’ll find my husband and myself checking a few last emails and then shutting our laptops, not to be opened until Saturday night after the kids are asleep.

I first had the idea maybe a year ago, but it took me a while to find the courage to even propose it to my husband as a new family habit. I was both excited and scared that he would agree to the plan and that I would have to go through with it. We’d been adding more Shabbat observances to our Friday nights and starting to create a real space for a sabbath there – preferring to stick to home or with close friends on Friday nights rather than going to events, and doing whatever we were doing together as a family. My husband was raised Jewish but followed its practices only to a minimal extent, despite deep interest in and respect for a lot of the traditions. It may be cliche, but since having kids we have wanted to teach them about their heritage, and build beautiful family traditions, and a Friday night Shabbat celebration was becoming part of that. Doing a digital fast was a leap from a single observance Friday night to setting aside the sabbath as a unique day of the week.

Previous to our experiment, I admit I felt sabbath days were days of deprivation and restriction. I thought that calling it a day of “rest” was trying to make the best of challenging circumstances, and that calling it a “gift” was a sure sign of being hopelessly enchanted by your religion.

The first night we tried it, I was at such loose ends, I actually tackled cleaning my bedroom closet – something that always sinks to the bottom of my priority list. Realize that I run a large part of my life through the computer – work, social and volunteering – and my usual state at home is to have the laptop open with me going back and forth between taking care of things in the virtual world and the real world. The next day the morning was so peaceful – just enjoying being with my family without feeling distracted or stressed by what else I could be doing on my computer. The middle of the day was fairly normal – time spent doing things together as a family as we always do. In the evening we put the kids to bed, and I actually savored the last bit of time free of the computer before taking a deep breath and plunging back in.

We enjoyed the experiment enough that we have repeated it every week since, and found a few challenges, and many blessings. It is almost humorous how adrift we are without the computers – wondering what Google Calendar is trying to tell us we have scheduled for the day, needing to look up phone numbers and store opening hours for errands we want to run, wanting to check the weather, missing last minute invitations (and cancellations) due to being offline for over 24 hours… We’ve allowed a couple exceptions to the rules – we will use Skype to talk to remote relatives (hi guys!) and I can use my iPod Touch to look at my shopping list if I go, but any new items for the list go on a piece of paper. I’ve started the habit of keeping a sheet of paper near me for shabbat to write down new to-do items and shopping list items, and to write down anything beforehand from my computer that I need to operate for the day.

The annoyances are trivial, though, and the blessings are profound. The whole day is more peaceful and the everyday stresses are at least paused, since there is little we can do about them until Shabbat is over. Our attention and focus can be directed in longer duration to each other and our children. Creativity has space to well up. I find time to pick off tasks from the nether regions of my to-do list, which always gives me a great psychological boost – those tasks can hang over my head for months or years – never important enough to do, but important enough to add to my stress level.

Most importantly for me, in taking 1/7th of my week off from being digitally connected, I have gained more perspective on my computing – able to use it more to serve my needs rather than just using it by default when I’m not doing anything else. The creativity I feel while offline helps guide my priorities for using my time when I am online. And it’s a good thing it’s reduced my idle use of my computer, since it compresses the time I have available for the high priority things I do!

I’ve also been seeing the contrast between my privileged life of space-age intellectualish pursuits and the life of constant manual labor lived by most people in the world and through history. I am thankful to live in a time and culture where I have the privilege of being able to create my own sabbath traditions, but I also appreciate now how universal the appeal is of a day of rest. If I feel this much joy from a respite from *my* daily chores, how much more must a person feel who receives the sabbath as a gift from a loving deity to permit them to rest from their hard labors, reflect on their lives and refresh and rededicate themselves for the week ahead.

This week we had a very special Shabbat – we had been visiting my husband’s family for three weeks and had just set out Friday morning for several days of road-tripping home when we ran over a car’s wheel that was loose in the middle of the highway. Our two driver side tires blew out and we skidded to a stop in the second-to-left of four lanes on the Raleigh beltline. After a few terrifying minutes worrying we’d be rear-ended by someone going 65mph talking on their cell-phone, traffic got blocked behind us and we were merely stuck waiting for police and tow truck. After calling 911, I called back to my in-laws, who came out to retrieve us.

Now our hosts were supposed to be flying to Mexico that day for work, but one was too sick to go and then the flight was cancelled for the other. So we ended up at their home, none of us expecting 24 hours prior that we would be there at all. Exactly two shabbat candles were found in the house. An exquisite challah was procured from a French bakery, and out came a modestly priced wine that was the honestly the best I’ve ever had. Perhaps the fear and upheaval of the day made us savor the meal that much more, but, if I’m not deluding myself, it was really an amazing Shabbat materially as well as spiritually…

Spiritually, because I’ve never had a Shabbat where I felt so thankful for family and togetherness, and for my very life – and the very structure of Shabbat helped me through my reactions to the accident – it offered a time where I could formally be thankful and reflect on my gratitude for what we have, and our practice of being offline for Shabbat gave me the space in the day following the accident to just enjoy my family and let the events of Friday morning sink in without repressing and distracting it all away with computer use. The myriad details that needed dealing with in the aftermath of the accident – all the rearranging of plans – were put on hold until after Shabbat – with only the most urgent happening either before the start of Shabbat, or by phone during Shabbat. I would like to think that these events were not part of any master plan, but if so, all I can say is thank you G-d for Shabbat!