The etymological origins of the word Sabbath run deep and are entwined in different cultures. At a lecture on this topic at University College London in 2015, entitled Workshop on the Origins of the Seven Day week, experts argue that the word itself (Sabbath) is originally Hebrew while others say it’s Akkadian. The historian Josephus says in “the dialect of the Hebrews” it’s defined as a day of rest. It’s a noun that is also used as a verb and the Bible says on the seventh day, God rested or ceased his creative activities. The idea of resting from the week’s work is found simultaneously in early Greek, Christian, and Arabic traditions and is practiced today by many faiths, albeit in different manners. What transcends Christianity, Islam and Judaism is the desire to temporarily leave behind the confines of the daily grind and to transport oneself to a plateau of spirituality and introspection.
The concept of rest is prescribed for some religiously while others elect to voluntarily take a step back from the work week. The most impactful way this can be accomplished, is to eschew cell phones, iPads, and all electronics. I was raised in a family that has always observed the Sabbath. For me, it’s never been about what I can’t do, but rather about interacting with family and friends in a relaxed hassle free environment. When I turn off my phone, I actually turn on to the people around me and give them my full attention. I’m not constantly checking and responding to omnipresent texts and email requests. Instead, I concentrate on my face to face conversations. Unplugging also allows me to slow down and to take stock of my week’s accomplishments, goals, where I’ve fallen short and why. I become reflective when I’m not constantly responding to business and personal queries.
I have a 5 year old nephew who takes his iPad on his school bus so as to play Subway Surfer with his friends. His parents resisted as long as they could, but so as to let him fit in with the other children, they eventually relented. Little children are as addicted to phones and cellular devices as we are. Most people see this as a problem. In our family, at least one day a week, the children are not allowed to be on their devices and for this we feel very fortunate. When they ask to use phones, we tell them instead “to practice the fine old art of conversation.” And we do. I use my day of rest to connect with friends, entertain, enjoy the outside and to visit the sick and the elderly. None of us realize the amount of time we spend on our phones. Sabbath observance lets me use my time differently than I do the rest of the week.
I’ve noticed that when I’m not focused on my phone, I’m much better at focusing in on those I’m with. They get my full attention and concentration and I’m able to think about what they’re saying and to analyze my responses. The absence of cell phones draws me in closer to family and friends. Also, I don’t get derailed by a call or a text in the middle of a conversation. I’m able to concentrate in ways that I never can when I’ve got my phone on. Hence, another Sabbath blessing is reading books. I do all of my reading on my day of rest. It’s just become part of that special day. Being phone free also allows me to indulge in my once a week nap when I catch up on much needed sleep, thereby lessening my mandatory use of caffeine.
Professor Paul Dolan, of the London School of Economics, describes two mental conditions that occur due to cell phone overuse: Phantom Vibration Syndrome, when we think we’re being texted but we’re not and internet addiction. He advises that it’s much better for us to be fully in the moment with a person than to be constantly diverting our attention to monitor cell phone chatter. I believe that it becomes an obvious statement about our conduct when we are deep in conversation yet intermittently respond to our phones. What we are really saying is that the phone takes precedence over the person in front of us. Professor Dolan actually says that cell phone banishment is the secret to happiness.
Friends and acquaintances often comment on how difficult being cell phone free must be and how they’d feel totally cut off from their lives if they tried it. There’s enormous pressure to feel connected to others. However, I’ve found that when I’m cell phone free I feel more closely connected to people. I was always very embarrassed about my cell phone free 24 hours over the weekend- especially when it came to telling my bosses. I worked for Katie Couric as a researcher right after college where I had the great good luck of being assigned to read Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive. Ms. Huffington gave me the courage to be proud of my Sabbath. She showed me how important it is to take that much needed break every week for long elaborate Friday night dinners, country walks with friends, hospital visits to the sick. These are cell phone free gifts in which I’m able to relate to the people in my life in profoundly deeper ways.
When I meet new people, it comes as a surprise to them that I go 24 hours weekly with my phone off. They cannot even imagine themselves doing the same thing. I realize how lucky I am to have been brought up in Sabbath observance and I’m grateful for all the beauty it brings to my life. It’s never been about what I can’t do but rather about the specialness of the day. For one day a week, I’m free of cell phone demands, enticements and distractions. My life takes on alternate pathways of pleasure and productivity. My sabbath day affords me the opportunity to live life differently one day a week. If I want to speak to someone, I’ll actually go to their house or arrange to meet them face-to-face and like we tell my nieces and nephew, enjoy the fine old art of conversation.