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Oliver Sacks: Sabbath (nytimes.com)
197 points by samclemens on Aug 15, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments



As a Christian, I decided a few years back to start taking Sundays as a Sabbath. I don't have hard rules, but I mostly stay away from a computer/smartphone/email/etc. So no programming, browsing the internet, finances, none of the normal responsibilities/distractions. Instead I use the day to go to church, read the Bible and other books, pray, nap, spend time with friends and family, and do outdoors activities.

In retrospect, this has worked out fantastically for me. I love Sundays now - there is a sense of peace most Sundays which is great. I enter Mondays feeling refreshed and ready to work. I would recommend taking a Sabbath day once a week to anyone, I think it is beneficial regardless of your beliefs.

Two notes: First, the idea of a Sabbath is not an idea that condemns work. Christian theology holds working well as a moral virtue and something that honors God. In fact, part of taking a Sabbath, I believe, is working harder and being less lazy the other six days of the week.

Second, Whether taking a Sabbath is mandated for Christians is a debated issue, though I personally think it is not. The difference between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law of Judaism and the law's applications to Christianity is a complex topic. Christians are definitely not held to the ceremonial/civil law, but the command to keep the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments, and thus some view it as a moral imperative. I feel that in the spirit of Christian liberty (a freedom of action but still subject to God's moral principles), taking a day for a Sabbath is a personal decision.


Mark 2:27: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

I was raised Catholic in the 70s, so we didn't have many hard and fast rules about Sundays (we never called it the Sabbath), aside from church (which could be attended on Saturday evening instead). It wasn't 'til I married into a conservative Presbyterian family that I heard people call it Sabbath (instead of Sunday). My wife's family had relaxed the rules around the day over the years, but there is still a strong sense of the cycle of church and rest.

We've come to settle on no hard and fast rules for our family, but our Sunday rhythm is very similar to yours. I agree that there are no hard and fast rules that a Christian must live by, but the concept of rest is a recurring theme throughout the Bible, and we should take that seriously.


Mathew 5:48 'Ye shall be 7'


I personally believe there's a strong pro-Sabbath argument to be made from the New Testament:

In the gospels, Jesus says he is the master of shabbat; how can a person be a master of something he is abolishing?

Again in the gospels, we read Jesus ruling it is lawful to do good on the sabbath - if he was aiming at abolishing sabbath, why talk about what's lawful to do during sabbath?

Then, in the epistles, the author of Hebrews writes, "There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."

Combined with the historical reality that the early Christians were almost all Jews who saw themselves within Judaism, it is probable the early Christians were sabbath keepers.

As others in this thread have noted, spiritual significance aside, the physical rest and ceasing of ahabbat is healthy. Its importance is amplified in our work-obssessed culture; more so in the startup culture.


>Again in the gospels, we read Jesus ruling it is lawful to do good on the sabbath - if he was aiming at abolishing sabbath, why talk about what's lawful to do during sabbath?

He was claiming to be God

>Then, in the epistles, the author of Hebrews writes, "There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God."

The point of the book is to say that all the things of the old covenant (the priests, the sabbath, the commandments) are inferior to the new things. In the new, the 'sabbath' is Christ himself. We are to labour to enter into this rest.

That being said, I honour the original (pre-Sinai) shabbat by getting out and enjoying nature, thus honouring His creative acts. It's exhausting, not restful at all. I'm thankful that I live in a culture where I can dedicate the Sunday entirely to worshipping the risen Christ and rest, but as a believer I'd have liberty to do it on any other day if Sunday was not workable.


I agree with you that the case can be made, although I don't know how much I agree with your case, and I still think the case is stronger against a mandatory Sabbath.

Hebrews 4 talks a lot about entering into Sabbath rest. But my interpretation of its main gist is that those who believe and obey the good news enter into God's Sabbath rest. I don't think it's speaking about a literal Sabbath day.

I agree that early Jewish Christians probably practiced the Sabbath, but did early Gentile Christians?

There are also passages in the NT, such as Romans 14 and Colossians 2:16-17, which support the idea that a Christian has freedom to practice an explicit Sabbath day or to not practice it.

So I concur with you that, in Christianity, taking an explicit Sabbath day is permissible and even beneficial. I just don't think it is mandated, and I think a Christian can legitimately believe that he/she shouldn't take an explicit Sabbath day.


I'm Jewish, observe the Sabbath in a traditional way, am married with three children, and am a self-employed consultant.

I'm delighted that for 25 hours each week, I'm unable to check my e-mail, be in touch with clients, work on pressing deadlines, or be connected to my phone, or watch TV and movies.

Instead, I spend quality time with my wife, children, and friends. I read. I play board games. I enjoy long, extended meals with equally extended discussions.

Can you do this without the restrictions of the Sabbath? Of course. Is this the only way to have quality time with friends and family? Of course not. Does it involve trade-offs, such as not being able to hike around in nature on weekends (which is arguably part of how we would want to rest and relax)? Yes, for sure. Everyone finds their own way to observe.

But in my experience, the traditional set of trade-offs is very much worthwhile. I work nonstop during the week, and while I love my work, it's fantastic to take a break, think about what's really important in life, and even catch up on sleep -- which is, let's be honest, another nice part of the Sabbath!

I should add that observing the Sabbath as an individual is almost certainly a ticket to loneliness and/or misery. It only works if you do it within a context of others -- family, and even more importantly, a community -- who are similarly inclined. I have, over the years, spent a handful of Sabbaths completely on my own, and those were freeing and meditative in their own ways. But I've long argued that a very large part of Judaism's success is that it forced the creation of close-knit communities. The Sabbath is one factor that leads to such communities, and it's then that the community gives back.


Exactly. But it was only when I entered the workforce full-time that I truly appreciated Shabbat. Especially in a world when I am expected to be on-call 24 hours a day, I honestly cannot understand how people do without a real break once a week. On a personal level, it can't be healthy to constantly be on, 24/7, practically 365 days/year - and translated to a musing of more general applicability, that might lead to better / more productive business. Perhaps a worthy subject for experimentation by businesses (more than what some banks have done recently for summer interns and junior analysts).


> On a personal level, it can't be healthy to constantly be on, 24/7, practically 365 days/year

It is also unsustainable. If your job expects you to do that, someone has a wrong idea of how the world works (but it is more likely you will get blamed when things go wrong, rather than the person who had the wrong idea).

If I were in your place, I'd look for a job that respects my off-time. 24/7 is acceptable (if compensated) once a month, maybe even once a week in some cases - but definitely not every day, and definitely not 365 days a year.

What do you do on vacation? On a plane?


1. In case I wasn't clear, I meant being on-call nearly all the time - not that I have actual work all the time. You generally get a fair amount of weekends off, but it makes planning difficult, etc. 2. This is reality for a LOT of white-collar jobs today (wall st., lawyers, consultants, etc.).


To me, the great value of the Sabbath as a day of rest is what Sacks calls "its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns". Keeping a day like this affirms our absolute value as human beings, which is independent from whatever value we have economically, socially, or in any other way.


A day of rest in the context of life in a world that is aggressively trying to harvest all your personal resources -- not just time and money, but to influence your thinking and behavior -- "affirming our absolute value as human beings" is spot on.


I think all value is subjective. What do you mean by 'absolute value as human beings'?


Let's call it a very strong and uncomplicated bias, as a human being ;)

I see human consciousness as what makes a human being. I don't think that the value of this human consciousness changes, goes up or down, or exists in relation to anything besides that it is what we are.

By the way, I see that my first comment could be read as if I was including myself in Sacks's faith community. I was not. Anyone can have something like the Sabbath.


I'm not the GP, but I'll take a stab.

Human beings (and other sentient things) are special in that they are both subjects and objects of value. That is, human beings are both things that are valued and things that value. This means that human beings are capable of having value even if nobody else is around to value them--because they value themselves.

I suspect that GP only means that keeping the sabbath, and disconnecting from everything else one gets wrapped up in in the course of everyday life, helps to remind you of this.


> That is, human beings are both things that are valued and things that value.

I'm not convinced there's enough evidence to support the claim that humans are the only species that assign value to things. Maybe I'm missing something.


The statement that you quote does not seem to say the same things as your interpretation (it didn't say "only").


> Maybe I'm missing something.

This part?

> (and other sentient things)


One could imagine that a human exists that does not value their self?

All of this is compatible with subjective value. It's even explicit in your description: 'they value themselves'. To have an absolute value, there must be an unchanging metric outside of human consciousness by which to measure humans.


> One could imagine that a human exists that does not value their self?

Sure. I'm sure there are many such people. Does this make a difference for the purposes of this discussion?

> all of this is compatible with subjective value. It's even explicit in your description: 'they value themselves'.

Correct! I wasn't disagreeing, just trying to explain the sentiment in subjective terms.


I can't think of anyone I'd rather hear from on death. This man spent his life trying to understand and communicate what it was to exist as a human being, what it was to be conscious, how we see and interpret the world. He wrote some of the most entertaining, but also enlightening books I've ever read. He is now facing the end of his life with the sort of philosophical peace of Socrates.


Those interested in an in-depth reflection on Sabbath practices might find this book interesting:

"The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time" by Judith Shulevitz

http://www.amazon.com/The-Sabbath-World-Glimpses-Different/d...

It's one of the more thoughtful books about where/how religious practice meets human needs that I've come across in a while, and getting a lot out of it doesn't depend on being a believer of any kind.


This probably explains the massive movement that inspired a million Jews to experience and keep one Shabbat last year as part of http://www.theshabbosproject.org and will likely imspire millions more this year.


Thanks for sharing, haven't heard of the project before.


Sure. Heres a video about it. https://youtu.be/S2EkDLqszHs


It's ironic that this submission is taking off on a Saturday morning when fans of the (Jewish) Sabbath are presumably absent from HN.


True, thought in some parts of the world it's not sabbath anymore


Is it also ironic that I am an NFL fan, but I don't play football (professionally or otherwise)?


No it is not, but you've missed the point.


Nothing about the popularity of this submission on this day is ironic[1]. As far as the temporal component goes the article was published today on a popular website. "News" submissions often receive the most attention close to the day of publication.

I do not think there is any cultural explanation for "irony" in this case. You seem to imply that the obvious upvoting demographic for this article are sabbath-observing jewish readers of HN. Are gentiles not expected to be interested in other cultures? How interesting do you think an article about the sabbath is to someone that observes the sabbath once a week? Most importantly, the article is about much more than observing the sabbath. I think it is possible that you read the headline and just blurted out the first shower thought that came to mind. Did you read the article in its entirety?

[1] Irony: fig. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.


pretty much the definition of irony if you ask me.


What is your definition of irony? The definition from the OED I gave above?


The idea of giving yourself permission to enjoy any length of time without the guilt of not being productive is definitely good for you. It's tough going if your personality is wired to ruminate though.

But the idea of scheduling down time for "being in the present" sounds worthwhile. I could do with this.


>It's tough going if your personality is wired to ruminate though.

This might be why Judaism has many rituals throughout shabbat. Longer prayers with more interactive singing. Three meals with family and friends and of course the most important part...an afternoon nap!


While being a non-believer (but raised in a Catholic family, when not working or shopping during Sunday was strictly observed), I still consider it "an ancient wisdom".

I am trying to have one day of rest (i.e. intended not working, not to confuse with "I wanted to work, but it turned out that I was slacking off"), but given that I always have some overdue projects, it's too tempting not to "observe Sabbath". However, I see that in the long run it's better to rest one day (and doing programming side projects is not rest in that sense) rather than have 7 days of reduced productivity.


I was raised keeping the Sabbath fairly strictly, but not to the level of Orthodox Judaism. There were the things I "couldn't do" on the Sabbath that I really would have liked to do, but I always kept the Sabbath faithfully as a child. It seemed like a limiting restriction, but I did it anyway. After I graduated and entered the workforce, I started to appreciate the Sabbath more--probably for the same reasons that many commenters here recognize some of the positive aspects of the idea. It's a nice break from the normal routine, a chance to rest, rejuvenate, etc.

But now I do not keep the Sabbath any more. Somewhere along the line I rejected enough of religion that I didn't feel it was necessary even though I recognize the positive aspects of it. Now I work on Sabbath sometimes. I do side programming projects on Sabbath sometimes. I rest on Sabbath sometimes. Sometimes I rest, relax, and rejuvenate all weekend. I don't feel its necessary to take good guiding principles and observe them as strictly as Sabbath keepers seem wont to do.

But maybe that's just because of my personality. Maybe there are people who need a strict Sabbath to prevent themselves from overwork and burnout. I have a pretty high level of intrinsic motivation and drive myself harder than many, but I have a good internal burnout avoidance mechanism. I'm sure there are people out there who don't have that and for whom a device like the Sabbath might be very important. At the end of the day, I think there are very few absolutes, and I find that my life is happier when I'm not worrying about the Sabbath.


Growing up a Seventh-Day Adventist, Sabbath was just the day that you weren't allowed to have any fun.

As with all things, if it works for you, great. Just don't force it on anyone else.


I think it often does feel that way to kids, as most things with rules do. Even as an adult the commitment to taking a weekly break sometimes seems restrictive, but only in the short term. The long term effect is rejuvenating.

It's interesting to see the secular world discover the value of resting and disconnecting. I've long thought it interesting that Stephen Covey chose the seventh habit of highly effective people to be "Sharpen the Saw".

In regard to forcing others, individuals vary, but the SDA church as a whole has long opposed the state forcing citizens to observe a Sabbath. Any members who use physical force over the matter of Sabbath observance would probably use physical force over other things too, and likely says more about the individual's character than the character of the Sabbath, Sabbath-keeping, or sabbatarians.


http://www.davidbrin.com/dogmaofotherness.html is a fantastic take on your last point.


> As with all things, if it works for you, great. Just don't force it on anyone else.

Here's a question, because this is a phrase I've encountered a lot, but I have often wondered whether this is somewhat a self-defeating statement. "Don't you dare force your beliefs on anyone else" is in itself a belief, that you are forcing upon another, is it not? Just because it is a belief about beliefs, or how someone ought to believe, does not excuse it, I have wondered.


I'm not making a philosophical statement. I'm saying if you cross this line, our ability to live peacefully together is going to end.


His premise is sound though. If you force a belief on someone without nurturing an appreciation and understanding of why they are supposed to be doing it...the moment they are free of your control they will stop doing it.

He atleast explains why you shouldnt force it...(because it makes the day no fun.)

Really interesting along his point is that in Jewish Law, if someone violates the Shabbat rules, while technically it is a sin punishable by death, he is considered innocent, like a child who doesnt know better...because if they truly understood and appreciated the value of the day, it would be impossible not to observe it.


Who's forcing anything?


I'm mainly speaking from a personal perspective as someone who was knocked against a tree and thrown to the ground by an ex-stepfather for trying to refuse to go to church on the Sabbath.

There's also the history of Blue Laws in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_law


I've been shomer shabbat (observant of the sabbath) in the past and am still involved in Jewish communities full of observant people, even though I am clearly less observant.

When I first became shomer shabbat, the first thing I noticed was the peace. The best way to describe it is like the piece you have after the die is cast. If something isn't right, there's nothing you can do about it and there's no sense in worrying about it. The decisions have been made, the work has been done, and whatever will come will come. I'm sure that some of it is the relief to be done with the preparation for shabbat (which can involve a bit of a hurried last-minute pace leading up to it), but I think there's something real about feeling like there's nothing you can do about things.

I remember other students in college asking me if it felt like a disadvantage to studies. In fact, it felt like the opposite. Before being shomer shabbat, I would procrastinate (not overly so or in a damaging way, but procrastinate a bit nonetheless) and that procrastination would lead to worry. I should be doing work now. The procrastination and worry would combine to zapping my energy when I would get around to work. Being shomer shabbat meant that there was no need to worry. The die was cast and there was nothing I could do. There's no reason to fret over something you can't change. Motzei (after) shabbat, I'd feel refreshed having not used (wasted) my mental energy worrying, obsessing, etc. over things I needed a break from anyway.

It also creates a great atmosphere of socialization - like in the time before technology. You walk to meet up with people around you, you eat meals with people, you talk in parks, etc. Without such socialization, shabbat would drag on. But the other people make it a positive, communal experience.

There's also something special about artificially limiting groups. In the modern world, we often flock to those who have the same ideological bent, same hobbies, same professions, and same income levels. While sabbath-observant Jews hardly qualifies as a cross-section of society, there's something special that happens when you need to rely on people who have different politics, different hobbies, etc. for a decent amount of your social life and free time. When a group is small enough (and perceived by those in the group as necessary), one has to be kinder with one's words and a little more flexible to make the group dynamic work in a stable way. It's certainly no ideal society or anything like that, but while a lot of modern society promotes mobility (the ability to take "take my ball elsewhere" if one wants something different), that's less of the case here. At least where I live. If I were writing from New York, I'm sure there's plenty more ability to take one's ball elsewhere and fracture communities over comparatively small things due to the high proportion of sabbath-observant Jews within walking distance.

It's also an interesting article to think about on the same day that the NYTimes has published its article on Amazon's working conditions. One of the ideas behind shabbat is that work is never done. You could work every hour of your life and never realize an end-goal because life has no end-goal. A few weeks back at work, the topic of Soylent came up. One coworker noted that many at their school saw it as important because they could save so much time that they could put to work. Another coworker critisized that notion arguing that life wasn't about work and that meals offer time to rest and socialize. The Amazon article had emphasized the drive to create which kept workers going through what could be daunting demands on themselves. I love creating. It's why I'm an engineer. But the creation is never done. I've never looked at something and concluded that it's just done. Is working such long hours merely chasing a "done" state that we won't ever catch? Maybe our schooling has programmed us with artificial "done" states with each semester and graduation just to set us up for a lack of them in the real world.

Like the end of a semester or graduation, shabbat provides an artificial "done" state. Even if your paper or exam isn't what you want it to be, it's done when the course is over and there's nothing you can do about it. Even if your work isn't completed to the state you want by sundown friday evening, there's nothing you can do about it. It's done.

In a world where we can plan so much and there are very few limitations on our use of labor, it's an interesting way to live. In antiquity, the lack of cheap, artificial light could limit work hours of the day; seasons would limit farming. The lack of easy vehicles to transmit and grow wealth into the future, the lack of easy mobility, the lack of distractions like television to avoid other people, etc. all make antiquity very different from modernity. In some ways, it makes shabbat feel alien to the modern world. You're not allowed to plan for anything after shabbat while it's shabbat. You live within the day. You live where you are and with those around you since you can't go far without a vehicle (which includes bicycles for most). You must find different ways of passing the time (reading, communal meals, outdoor activities). I'm not arguing that it's an ideal way to live, but it's certainly interesting.

I'm not sure I have any sort of conclusion, but I keep thinking back to something that happened the summer after my senior year of college. I was wandering around campus because it was shabbat afternoon and a walk seemed like a good distraction. I ran into one of my professors who was more of a socialist/atheist Jew who asked if I would help him carry things. This was acceptable given that there was an eruv (you can watch Wyatt Cenac's piece from the Daily Show if you want more information on what an eruv is). He hadn't known that I was shomer shabbat and it came up in conversation while moving things. He apologised for asking me to move things on shabbat, but all I could think about was how this was what shabbat felt like to me. I hadn't planned on helping him move things. It just happened. If I hadn't happened to run into him, it wouldn't have happened. It was this little island of time where something happened by coincidence that had nothing to do with anything that came before it or anything that would come after it. It was whatever came my way during the day.

And it was good and restful and meaningful.


Really appreciate your comment, and will have to digest if further. But, in the moment must say, thank you thank you thank you for being the one to mention the connection to the NY Time article about Amazon. Would think that was the de-facto immediate connection, and by all means, yes!


At first I wasn't sure why I clicked through but it was worth it. While not really "hacker", read till the end and you might find a bit of the rest and self-reflection offered bu the Sabbath.


I actually think this is extremely relevant to hacker.

The fundamental concept of sabbath is, "create and manipulate and be a slave to nature for 6 days...but on the seventh day you take a day out to reflect and appreciate what you created and become a king over your domain and appreciate your accomplishments and creation. In essence, sabbath is equivelant to shipping.


I can confirm from experience that restricting computer/electronics use on Saturdays does wonders.

Currently am going further and practicing to include fasting on Fridays and 'Village' on Sundays to complete the mystical triad.

Four-day week with the rest as my own personal projects! Yea!

Simple ritual hacks that help in keeping my feet on the ground.


"The Second World War decimated our Jewish community in Cricklewood, and the Jewish community in England as a whole was to lose thousands of people in the postwar years."

Why would that happen in the UK? Did they just skipped country while it was having war problems, or were there any oppression?


I wish atheism had its enforced slack and rituals of inconvenience to temper the soul. Oh wait, it does ..




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