The idea of taking a sabbath from the digital world, a day off from our “on-all-the-time” way of life, is a beautiful, and urgent utilization of an ancient idea for a modern reality that sometimes feels like it is careening out of control. Some of us will find our motivation to unplug for shabbat in the most up-to-date brain science that tells us (what should be obvious) that the human brain and nervous system are not meant to be attached to the random, rapid and incessant pings of a computer in our pocket that connects us to most of the world. Others seeking a sabbath from electronic devices will observe that owning a machine that quite often either assigns us work, tries to sell us things we didn’t previously think we needed, or compares our insides to other people’s outsides might not have been the best purchase, certainly not as a portable device. Now that we all own one, our first step to freedom is to turn it off one day a week. Some of us, because of our faith heritage, already believe that we are supposed to take a sabbath from all things common and worldly one day a week and so it fits into a bigger picture of a way of life.
The sabbath is today, and always has been, much more than a leisurely meal with full attention to friends or a walk in nature, as wondrous as those things are. The sabbath, as a personal practice, gives inspiration, meaning and direction to many. But the sabbath, at its core, is not primarily a “personal” construct, it is a vision for a human community of respect, decency, and equality. Since ancient times, the sabbath has been one of humankind’s most radical ideas for imagining a society built upon a belief in human dignity, in the sacredness and infinite value of every human being. To speak of the sabbath is to believe that every person, even the most poor and beleaguered among us, deserves as much as any other person to have one full day every week in which they have sufficient sustenance, adequate shelter, and freedom from enemies and abusers. On the sabbath, every person is accorded the respect of their community which requires of them to engage with their most authentic selves, connecting to their deepest longings and evaluating their own deeds. While this vision of human freedom and equality has done enormous good in the world, has animated many great movements, and has inspired countless people, it remains as distant a dream as ever.
It would be more than sufficient reason to unplug from our devices one day a week if only in order to rebalance the chemicals in our brains, take back a sense of control over our lives, and rest. Any sabbath, and particularly a respite from the connected world, is much more. The sabbath is a first critical step towards imposing order and accountability on the digital cyber community. The day of rest is not merely an end in itself, but also a means to the much larger goal of a better world. The sabbath is a system of laws and regulations that a person, or a community, takes upon themselves in order to improve their lives and strive towards a better future. When observers of a sabbath set limits and boundaries on what work is or is not permitted, what tools one might or might not use, they do so from a deep conviction that beautiful things are built within boundaries. The sabbath is, in the words of the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, a palace in time.
The internet as we know it up until this point was born out of an opposite vision of a world beyond sovereign states and sovereign law. The internet’s architects meant to carve out the digital realm as a place distinct from a material world that could be governed by laws of any system. Our electronic devices and our social media accounts, our posts and our pings, demand our attention without limit, reason or accountability, because they come from a place that was designed to be unbounded and beyond accountability. In the words of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”
The origin story of the sabbath, by contrast, derives from an ethical vision for a very tangible, material world. Perhaps someday cyber beings will inhabit a lawless, limitless cyber world in total happiness. But for flesh and blood human beings living on our one earth, we are experiencing in very tangible ways the limits of this theory. The sabbath can help reawaken our imagination to the world we want to inhabit and bequeath to our descendants. While some of us are taught to practice the sabbath as our cultural inheritance, the lessons and the gifts of the sabbath belong to all human beings who wish to benefit by aspiring to its principles. In its origin story, the sabbath is the reward for the creation of a beautiful earth, a starry sky, an endless ocean, abundant flora and fauna, and finally, two people who find companionship so that neither one will be alone. Perhaps one day, we can even observe a sabbath in cyberspace.
It is certainly the case that sabbath observance makes people slow down. But we slow down to achieve a higher purpose. Perhaps if more of us join together in this, we might not only ease our stressed-out souls, but we might create some very good data about how human beings can “move slow and fix things.”
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