Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shabbat Economics

During our study this past Shabbat, our Shabbat Task Force looked at the following passage:

Because Shabbat is often defined in terms of prohibitions against certain kinds of activities, many American Jews have come to think of Sabbath observance as a series of restrictions, a weekly sentence of self-denial. But Shabbat is not a retreat from the world or an exercise in asceticism. Making Shabbat is not a matter of refraining, but of doing…. Resting, eating and praying are not only permitted, but mandated. There are other verbs for Shabbat too; sleeping, reading, thinking, studying, talking, listening, meditating, visiting the sick, laughing, singing, welcoming guests, making love. But it is not entirely easy to choose even so pleasant and life-giving a discipline as Shabbat…. For chronically over-scheduled people, sitting still for an hour, much less an afternoon, can be a real challenge. However, these are precisely the reasons that many people view Shabbat prohibitions less as sacrifices than as opportunities to reorient an overly hectic life around the need for rest, relaxation, and time with family and close friends.
Anita Diamant, Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions,
Customs and Values for Today’s Families

One of the reactions from our discussion was how much this approach differed from some of the more "traditional" approaches we had seen so far. The feeling was that, in the end, many of the texts we had seen told us that we are to observe Shabbat because, in some way or another, we have to. It's an obligation, one which comes from the outside and, at times, without any reasoning (it's worth noting that, traditionally, all Jewish activity is done, at its core, because God said so). This passage, however, gives a more concrete reason for observing Shabbat - because of how great it can be for us.

It led to a brief discussion of a kind of overlap between Economics and Shabbat. In Economics, we all understand, at least on the simplest level, the idea of a scarce resource. We only have so much money. A great deal of it, most of it, for most of us, is spent on overhead - things that are out of our immediate control. Subtract rent, car payments, utilities, food and such from our paychecks, and there isn't always a lot left over to play with. So, how we spend that money becomes a matter of great concern and attention. Without even getting into moral decisions (e.g. how much goes to charity), we all realize, on some level, that we have to decide what we want more - an iPod or a nice dinner out? New clothes, or more books? Few of us have so much money that we can spend it without thinking about whether this item is worth this much to us.

What we often fail to realize is that we have an even scarcer resource, about which we have to have the same conversation: our time. Most of our time is spent on "overhead." Add up the time I need for sleep, and other necessities, and there isn't much time left for "discretionary spending." And, so, how I choose to spend that time becomes very important.

Shabbat is a day which is meant for careful spending of our time. Why do we not go shopping on Shabbat? Whether or not I believe that "God doesn't want you to shop," I still have to ask the question, "is this the best use of these few hours, right now?" Sure, my house needs cleaning, but my kids need attention, too. Of course, there are dozens of "to-do's" floating around, but I need to rest. On Shabbat, we try to only spend time on that which deserves our time. We set it aside as a time for the holy, not the mundane. The meaningful, not the empty.

Try it out - dedicate one Shabbat, or even part of one Shabbat, for paying attention only to things which really matter to you. What would that look like? What is worth your most precious commodity: your time?

No comments: